By Mike Johnston
If you're involved in sports, you probably have a hard time believing things. The year you just had ("we had an unbelievable year"), the way you just played ("I played unbelievable out there"), the opportunity you were given to play for the team, the "whole organization" you're playing for, the fact that the ball went into the basket or out of the ballpark or whatever it was supposed to do. It might even be necessary to point out to non-English-speakers that when one of our athletes says someone is "an unbelievable guy," he is not necessarily calling him a liar.
It's well known that, in our culture, we strongly encourage our athletes to finish college, where what they mainly learn is how to refer to themselves in the third person and speak entirely in clichés. This is to train them to give the appearance of saying something when they speak, while at the same time allowing them to say nothing. (As is also well known, when an athlete slips and actually does say something, it's often news. For instance, when an athlete is accused of domestic violence, the whole organization would definitely not find it unbelievable if the athlete were to slip up and blurt out, "bitch disrespected [insert athlete's own name]!" Likewise, at the post-game press conference, the organization does not want the athlete pointing out that the coach is a flustered cretin who took leave of his senses at the worst possible time during the game, even if that's exactly what happened.)
For photographers, too, clichés present inviting opportunities for appearing to make pictures while not actually saying, or meaning, anything.
The urge to make clichés stems from a desire to make pictures that look like everybody else's pictures. Why would anybody want to do this? Personally I think it's because it relieves us from having to rely only on our own judgment when evaluating what we've done. Photographers, far more than other kinds of artists, are perpetually insecure about whether what they've done is going to be accepted as good. I also think photographers like clichés because, at an early stage of our development, it's a way of demonstrating competence and accomplishment. You can tell you're in this stage because the phrases "that looks like a professional took it!" and "it looks like a postcard!" are construed as compliments, and make us swell up with pride. (Later, of course, those kinds of comments become insults.)
So what's a photographic cliché? As with pornography, you're supposed to know it when you see it. I suppose we might define it as "conventional subjects shown in a conventional way." That this leaves each of us to define "conventional" for ourselves is probably a good thing.
Conventions, of course, change. In the style known as "pictorialism"—largely defined through the journal Camera Work by Alfred Steiglitz, who later grew bored by it—it was conventional, for some reason I never understood, to include a large glass globe in many pictures (guild secret? Masonic talisman? Esoteric symbology? Beats me). During the Eisenhower years, it was conventional that pictures be robust, cheerful, forward-looking, even heroic (which fortunately didn't hamper the ebullient Eisie, one of the great photographers of those days). Lately, convention can be found on tony art-gallery walls, where "photographers" no other photographers have heard of display fey, fatuous, flat, fuzzy, foreboding photos of nothing, interchangeably.
If you're smiling at that, don't get cocky. Amateurs are even worse. After last week's column, Ken Croft observed:
I can now fully understand the fascination of the Nun in Venice. When I said I didn't like it, I thought that was the truth. If I analyze my thoughts, I probably dismissed it because I subconsciously realized that I would not expect my immediate friends to like it, if I had taken it myself. I guess I have drifted into taking pictures that friends and family will like, or that might win competitions, in order to win admiration and approval, rather than taking pictures just for myself.
That's an acute, perceptive insight. After twenty years (I'm not gonna start saying "twenty-five" until I absolutely have to*) of teaching and writing about and learning about photography, I firmly believe that Ken's insight describes what many of us do (or try to do), at least at first, and sometimes for many years. What informs the taste of people who pursue clichés, then, is their idea of the taste of others. Not the actual taste of others, mind you, but just the photographer's best attempts at second-guessing.
Be confident, baby
That's no way to live. As with many things, photography is often about self-confidence. The point is not so much to learn what other people like—that's ultimately a fool's errand—but to learn what you like. Only by identifying your own concerns and becoming comfortable with your own taste will you stand a chance of developing an organic style, or signature, or way of seeing, that is neither imitative ("designed to be like something else, but usually inferior to the original") or derivative.
I think this is why rebellious and nonconformist teenagers often make the best photography students. They don't want to conform. They don't work to please.
We each are stuck with using our own taste as the foundation for what's good or bad, because the taste of others is so varied and unpredictable. If I found one person who loved one particular picture of yours and and gushed about it on and on, praising it to the skies, and another person who hated it and pronounced it worthless, what would that teach you? If you learn your own taste and cultivate self-confidence, you can be secure in the face of either reaction.
When you know with a quiet but solid confidence that you truly like one of your pictures and you're not shaken in the least when someone says, "What the hell is the point of that?" or "I hate that!," you're there.
Go for it. Dare to be different; be yourself. Eschew cliché.
*I now have to.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.