Big kudos to Mick Ryan and David Paterson and several others who got where I was going with the clichés list yesterday. This is the post I meant to write; I was just having trouble coming up with a list and needed your help.
To start with, we do have to distinguish between what I would call photographic conventions—techniques and strategies—and subjects. I was talking about subjects. Mick wrote,
I don't think a subject can be cliché, it can only be a subject. How it is photographed can be a cliché.
I'm not sure I'd go quite as far as that; a baby's head as the center of a giant daisy is always going to be a cliché. (And it's always going to set off klaxon horns of startled alarm deep in my amygdala: bad taste scares me.) But let me just ask, is there anybody within the sound of my voice who has never made pictures of any of the subjects listed on yesterday's list of clichés? My top three were sunsets, flowers, and cats, and I notice to my amusement that I've actually posted two out of the three right here on TOP in recent months! (A sunset and a cat. And I was actually kinda proud of the sunset picture—I thought other people would like it, and, typically, they do.)
Here are some flowers just to complete the hat trick.
Only the insecure are afraid of clichés. I'll photograph a cliché at the drop of a hat! In nothing flat!
As Warren Garrett and Dave Karp and several other commenters noted, pretty much everything can be a cliché. Most subjects have been done to death. (Okay, I really have to stop writing in clichés now.) And you can certainly spend most of your photographic career working very hard and never shooting anything but things other people might consider clichés. Just because closeups of flowers are a cliché, does that mean you should never shoot one? Of course not. You could shoot nothing but. You should do whatever you want to. It's your photography.
As I mentioned yesterday, though, being aware of other peoples' perceptions is important. It helps to know not only the subject itself, but how other people have photographed that subject. Familiarity with the standard and the usual in a subject-matter area helps you regardless of your aspirational intentions. It helps you if your goal is to conform to the usual standard, and it certainly is necessary if your goal is to intentionally depart from the conventional standard. How can you do something new if you're not familiar with the way it's been done in the past?
On a deeper level, the problem of clichés is the whole problem of photography. How are you going to follow Ezra Pound's dictum to "Make it new"? One of the highest goals is to make something your own: to find your own concerns, develop your own visual style, and learn to make pictures that express your particular way of seeing, feeling, thinking, being, and communicating.
A learning exercise
So here's what I started out intending to suggest. (Except that I couldn't come up with a decent list, so thanks for all the help on that.)
First, devise a list of the worst clichés. Ten (or 50—whatever number appeals to you.) Our list could be a starting point. Strike anything you know you'd never get to (for instance, I know I'll never visit a slot canyon.) Add anything you think of that you want to tackle. Then, gradually work away at taking pictures of those conventionally clichéd subjects in ways that you think are particular and peculiar to you, to your way of seeing and your level of concern for, or interest in, that subject. Can you make a picture of a sunset that's really different and that really pleases you? Even if you dislike sunset pictures? What would your picture of an old person's hands look like? How would it be different? And so on.
How you'd go about this could be any of a thousand ways. You might try to make every cliché look fresh; you might try to make every cliché look ugly; you might try to find something odd or different about it; you could do it perfectly straight; you might try to out-do the "standard" and make your picture more over-the-top beautiful than anyone else's. You could be more sincere than anyone else or more ironic, more classic or more quirky. And so on.
How creative could you be? How different could you be? Does confounding peoples' expectations or fulfilling peoples' expectations appeal to you more? You're going to learn a lot about yourself here.
Best idea: try making of each clichéd subject a picture you really like and are proud of. Could you do it?
Another way to learn from a list of clichés would be to find photographs of each subject that you think are really great. For instance, I think this is a pretty great lighthouse photograph. (By Thomas Zakowski.)
You could even find famous photographs of nearly any subject you could name. Paul Strand shot barns. Weston, vegetables. Adams, waterfalls. Mary Ellen Mark, the homeless. Walker Evans, peeling posters. Aaron Siskind, rocks. Carleton Watkins made a wonderful picture of a single tree (the JPEG is but a pale shadow of the original large albumen print) that John Szarkowski wrote eloquently about in Looking at Photographs. Sorry, those are all Americans—I know American photography best. Daido Moriyama made a signature picture of a dog. Tempted as I am to make a joke about cat pictures, in Ernie: A Photographer's Memoir, Tony Mendoza made a whole book of deeply original cat pictures—the best book of cat pictures ever made. Mick is right—the subject isn't a cliché if you engage with it sufficiently. Make it yours, make it new.
Engaging with clichés—deeply, without contempt and with full thoughtfulness—using each subject in turn as an expression of your true self and attitude—could probably help most of us become better photographers. Because, really, you can't avoid 'em, eh? The choices you make in dealing with clichés might help better define your own attitude toward all subject matter.
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Gordon Lewis: "I hope I'm not splitting hairs here, but I'd define your example of a baby's face inside a giant daisy as kitsch: off-putting because of excessive sentimentality or cuteness. A cliché is something that betrays a lack of original thought or insight. The general reaction to a cliché, at least among the visually aware, is 'Ho hum, seen it all too many times before. Snore.' Where it can get tricky is when a photographer has a very distinctive and recognizable style—Annie Liebovitz or Ralph Gibson, for example. (Or Anne Geddes, for that matter.) What was at first innovative and iconoclastic can, over time, seem derivative of itself. Can your own style become a cliché?"
Mike replies: I think it can, but I also think it can be a protection. For instance, Ralph Gibson's picture of himself and the young Mary Ellen Mark touching hands is actually very sentimental and romantic, but it's armored against being "just" that by his very recognizable technical style which relates the picture to the rest of his work. His graphic way of seeing shapes and his characteristically hard tonality save it from being kitschy or sentimental.
Does it depend on how many imitators a style inspires? I used to make the argument that Ernst Haas got "lost" in his imitators—that is, he was imitated so much that he eventually just looked like any other practitioner of his style, when in fact he had developed that style. People could no longer see or sense Haas's own innovations as his. Other people shift the other way, as it seems their ownership of their style and subject extends out to other people who are doing the same thing. For instance, don't all studio shots of puzzled Weimaraners recall Wegman? (And how in the world is it that his photos of dressed-up dogs are art, whereas when anyone else does it it's kitsch?) In art school I had a classmate, Sarah Huntington, whose then-husband raised beef cattle, and she often photographed cows. When I put up a picture of a cow once in critique, another classmate exclaimed, "You can't do that! Cows are Sarah's!" It's curious and fascinating how all these associations work.