(...This is assuming that you want to avoid clichés. My basic principle is that anyone can do anything they want with their photography as long as they're not hurting anyone, and if someone wants to shoot nothing but stone clichés, okay.)
Gordon Lewis defined "cliché" as "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.'"
I have a few suggestions as to how to avoid clichés:
1. Be obsessed. Many photographers have obsessions. They deeply love the things they photograph, or their photographs of those things. They photograph them so much and so attentively that they speed right past the realm of the cliché and by pure force of will and weight of long practice become subtle and distinctive. An insect photographer knows which of his 12,000 insect pictures are extraordinary, and why. Cliché is really the province of the dilettante superficially skimming past on the way to something else; those who get immersed in their subject get to know it much better and can go deeper. Besides, the more you photograph something, the more likely the magic lightning is to strike.
2. Be good. Really good. Huw Morgan pointed out, somewhat contentiously perhaps, that Kate Kirkwood's pictures in our current sale...including "...cars on a misty road..." could be considered clichéd subjects. All right; maybe. But if there are nine million pictures of distant headlights on a dark road out there, then hers is better than 99.999% of them. After all, "Afghan Girl," like the Mona Lisa, is just a portrait of a young woman. If you've done something really good, instead of Gordon's "Ho hum, seen it all too many times before. Snore," what you'll get is "Wow, I've seen a lot of pictures of that kind of thing, but seldom one as great as that." (Wait till you see the print.) And it's not a generic road; it's a road in Cumbria and Cumbria is her wider subject. Anyway, be good and you'll sidestep cliché.
3. Take pictures that are personally meaningful to you. Robin P. sent me a picture of a dog who just got a new mat. Now, to you, or anyone else, that might just be yet another dog picture. You might think it's a cliché. But it's not to Robin. To Robin, it's his beloved Daisy, who he knows very well, and whose expression in this photograph naturally delights him. That makes the picture infinitely richer and more resonant to him than it might be to a stranger.
This picture (being a sunset) might be a cliché to you. It was taken from the sidewalk along the high bluff over Lake Michigan where various members of my father's family owned a summer house since the 1930s—from which my father said that his mother, my grandmother, who died when I was six but who I remember well, liked to watch the sunsets over Lake Michigan. That meaning, to me, makes it a richer experience for me than it might be for you. To you perhaps it's generic; not to me. I believe personal meaning can save pictures of standard subjects from the pitfall of cliché, at least for ourselves, and for those who care enough about us to understand what our pictures mean to us.
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Huw Morgan: "Thanks for this. My comments on Kate's images were intended to make the point that the subject is the least relevant part of an image. It is the interpretation that matters. Kate is a master at communicating the emotion of the moment and her passion leaps off the page.
"Obsession, mastery and passion are absolutely key. You are bang on. As photographers, we need not be concerned that subjects have been done to death as long as we can communicate our intense feelings towards the subjects. For example, there is an old locomotive in a town nearby that has been photographed to death from the point of view of the parking lot. The background from that angle shows a high school football field, complete with goal posts. If you go around to the other side of the locomotive and photograph towards a lake in the background, you can create an image that invokes the romance of the rails. With the right lighting and cloud cover, you can create an image that conveys a sense of mystery and power. Taking the time to stake out the subject and find the right way of communicating your feelings about the subject are key to making art."
kodia xyza: "The best example of subjugating a cliché, as noted by the three points listed, and perhaps much more, is among the work of Saul Leiter. Thus, really, the idea is not to avoid cliché, but to be aware and wrestle them. A noted cliché is the photographing through a window with raindrops, and Mr. Leiter loved it so (some collection of such photos here), enough to say 'a window covered with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person.'"