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Sunday, 09 October 2011


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I think it's borderline impossible to escape cliche after a certain point. As the Martin Parr article demonstrates, any photo you are likely to see can fit into one of maybe 10 categories.

The people who manage to break out of these categories are truly amazing to me. Someone like Albelardo Morell, whose pictures don't look anything like anyone else's. But they are few and far between. Us mere mortals are left to try to find meaning within fairly well trod paths.

That said, I don't really worry about it. I know what kind of pictures I like. My pictures have a lot of meaning to me, and also to the people in them. That's enough and means more to me than what a gallery owner (or PHD student in 20 or 40 years) might think. Perhaps if I keep following my own muse, I'll end up with some pictures on some walls somewhere (it's happened on occasion but I've stopped pursuing that sort of thing). Honestly it's less important to me than make images that suit my fancy, and, on occasion, I do. I'm ok with the fact that a lot of my images are medium warm pictures that Irving Penn or August Sander would have sneezed out in the bathroom.

ps talk about cliche breaking:


I know what you mean, Mike. But, by the same token, one needs to remain confident in his/her way of seeing, even if the subject is not necessarily novel. It's the way of seeing and presenting (via the print) that subject that remains essential.

The late Fred Picker refused to look at any picture that included a boat, or a lighthouse, or any number of other "cliches." And countless other teachers and critics have their own opinion as to forbidden subjects, including candid shots of people on the street. If I worried about all these "rules," I'd never take a photograph.

So, while I agree with your premise to remain confident, fresh and not derivative, I also think that one should work to "develop an eye," and perhaps a style, that is clear and true, and not listen too much to others, including those who have a rigid list of their own personal cliches.

I was Cambridge Mass yesterday in the Harvard Square area. There were so many people with cameras, really expensive camera with lenses worth thousands of dollars. They were everywhere.

It made me wonder, are all pictures going to be Cliché?

If this weren't so long I'd consider getting it printed on a t-shirt. Maybe just the last paragraph. On a different note, are you now comfortable with the number 25?

"It seems to me
I've heard that song before
It's from an old familiar score ..."
(Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn)

Personally, I'm not too proud to say "thank you" when someone says "that looks like a postcard." It's meant as a compliment, and unless you have an inflated opinion of your artistry, you'll take it as one.

Don't misunderstand. I agree with Mike. But if you do manage to develop your own style, soon it may be hanging around your neck as your very own cliché.

I'm a photographer. I take all kinds of photos. I'm not an artist, nor do I aspire to be one.

I'm guessing you've seen Martin Parr's entry on cliches :


Very well said, Mike!

I'm finally getting there and it's a kind of liberation. I really don't know whether I have any particular talent in this art or not, or if my photography efforts will ever be relevant to the general public; and I don't worry about it, no more.
I'm just pursuing my own art and pleasing my taste, trying to get better according to my own vision.

Thanks for this great piece of writing, very much needed in my humble opinion! And that photography by Lee Friedlander is simply great, perfectly illustrating your article and making me feel envious of such a shot :)

A column with extraordinary relevance to all of us, whether paid or not. While in college in the 70s i did my share of "paid" work; i dabbled in everything, actually. Sports for a few newspapers, theater and ballet (my biggest net money maker, remarkably), as well as the odd wedding or three (never again).

People enter my Pentagon office now and say "these are really good; why don't you sell them?" Not a chance; if someone likes an image, i will make'em a print and i may not even ask for the CostCo printing charge. Because now i shoot for me . . . and the images are much the better for it.

That's one amazing photo by Lee Friedlander.

On the other hand: if photographs communicate, on the analogy of speech or poetry, then they must be intelligible. Sure, they can push the envelope, be puzzling, and maybe we ask that of good photos, as we ask it of any art. But if you tip over the edge, you lose that communication.

So it's finding that edge. In the humanities and social sciences we ask of graduate students that they learn a communicating language, and from their point of view they must be very serious about proving that they know the language (leading to many ugly experiences for the reader, perpetuated not just by graduate students). It's the same for the striving photographer: you need to show you can do it first, and then, even when you know you can do it, you still need to be intelligible. True intelligibility is just that: unintelligible.

I still think, though, that it is possible for a work to reach that edge and stay there, even for following generations who have seen it so many times that you would think it would be a cliche. So I put it it to you that the photo by Lee Friedlander you have so kindly chucked in there is just such a non-clicheable work. OK, the hair/bush is maybe pushing cliche a bit, but what about the rocks/innards? Wow!

Mike, You posted this shortly after a friend commented about my most recent blog photo "Post card material. Serene." As an experienced photographer I reacted pretty much as you observe in this post. I wish he had only used the last word of his comment. I didn't make the photo with anyone else's opinion in mind much less a postcard image. I shot it because it caught my eye, because I liked the light and the mist in teh valley. Relating it to a postcard felt dismissive although I know he didn't really mean it that way. In the end I like it. Not the best photo I've ever made but a good one and I'm happy with it. Now if I can only get the "postcard" out of my mind. ;-)

Even though I have a year or two on these rebellious photography students I appreciate the advice and motovation. I haven't given up.

(On a side note what an incredible shot by Lee. Now that's imagination.)

But what about Cliché Verre ?

Ah, the anti-Flickr. Essentially, if too many people like it, either it's cliché or you are are dead and now discovered or you are one of those tiny percentage of artists who manage to make a living from non-cliché contemporary work. If you are a wedding photographer who doesn't do cliché good luck finding work. Weddings are cliché, and no, making it look like a war documentary doesn't mean it's not cliché. Ninety eight percent of human activity is somehow cliché (made that one up). Stephan Jay Gould used to write about the narrowing envelope of human possibility in sports like baseball and how that is reflected in the stats. I think we are seeing the same with photography and the pursuit of originality.

I wonder if sculptors and other artists have to deal with an equivalent of "change the crop", "the horizon shouldn't be center", "a portrait should never have the subject in the center of the frame", "the eye needs to be more in focus", "it needs to be sharper", "you should clone out that tiny twig in the far background as it's distracting" etc...?

And don't get me started on people with un-calibrated monitors saying a photo is too dark or the white balance is off.

This is in some ways about Steve Jobs, but in other ways pertinent to your post:


The punchline is in the 3-4 sentences at the very end.

Mike, it's a good piece of writing. I've been following TOP for quite some time but never felt like commenting on your posts. This is because they are written in such an eloquent way that there is no need to add anything to them.

This time however I feel I need to write something. First of all, it's almost impossible to be completely original. You are bound to imitate what has been already done to some extent. However, this is not that important (it's even a cliche itself).

What is important is that any artist needs appraisal. If you are serious about your art sooner or later you will need somebody to appreciate it. An artist creating for himself only is a romantic myth.

Now, if you are ahead of your time with what you do, most likely you will not be liked and this will be a source of your frustration. You will look at other photographers who are praised for their un-inspired work whereas you are gonna struggle with your self confidence. After all if nobody really likes what you do then perhaps you don't have talent.

In the end you will have to compromise. You will have to adjust your way of looking in such a way that it will fit to current trends. Once you get some appreciation then you may try to go wild with your vision.



The core of the debate may lie in the fact that conformism / non-conformism are perfectly symmetrical positions - and thus permurtables - in their aesthetic implications.

In retrospect this interchangeability is striking, in French we say that fashion go out of style and then is back in fashion, ad infinitum.

This wonderful photo by Lee Freidlander brings us to this reflection by Roland Barthes on delusion of photography:
the "What is" is in fact the "What Was" as the photographic act is consubstantial with the irreversible nature of temporality.

Great article!

Make sure your work is "all new" and cliches will never be a problem.

thanks for posting this today. It came right on time for me, I really needed this as a reminder.
Sounds stupid, but for a lot of people (including me) it's not as easy as it sounds to "learn what you like".
Wasn't it Steve Jobs who said something about "it's not the job of the users to know what they like"???
All around us there are so many people telling us what to like and what to hate, what is stylish and what is not, and on the other side there's just one person (me).
But I guess that's the only one that really counts. Simple thought, but true. Took me just XX*) years to find out.
*) Replace with some really high two digit number.

"Eschew" - gesundheit!

Nun in Venice is amazing. I began by viewing with your commentary in mind. Ultimately, I burst out laughing as I imagined it could have been a still from a Monty Python skit; her and the young couple just bring forth a world of possibility. I may have ruined it for myself as I will likely never be able to fully appreciate the photo froma purely artistic standpoint, but, it is hard to imagine exchanging a good laugh for a moment of sober study.

Thanks again for bringing these older comments/subjects back, it has only been in the last year or so that I have followed your blog and have missed alot.

Bravo, Mike. This is a really great piece of writing here, and well worth resurrecting from time to time.

I will say that it's a fine line between a cliche, and a good idea oft repeated.

Don't "eschew clichés" so absolutely, Mike.

Yes, I agree that the world does not need one more photo of the Eiffel Tower (or any of Paris), the Empire State Building, the Bodie ghost town, Antarctic icebergs, or the Grand Canyon Horseshoe Bend.

But for most people, photography has nothing to do with what the world needs or what the art market will buy. Nor do I believe that people take cliché photos to relieve themselves of the effort of creative thought…or even to be creative at all. In fact, I strongly believe that 99.99% of camera owners don't use the gadgets to become famous artists or "say" something new at all.

People use cameras mostly to record their lives. Their families. Their travels. Their friends. The big events and the small events. Most would be pee-in-pants thrilled to capture a perfectly executed "cliché" with their camera. It's what most folks aspire to.

And ya know, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact it's great fun!

You want to see how "cliché" has traveled the past century? Later this month the Art Institute of Chicago will open a photo exhibit titled "The Three Graces". It's a stunning presentation of a collection of anonymous snapshots from roughly 1910 to 1960-ish, each featuring three women in one form or another. Many are cliché, or were cliché in their day. But they're each captivating and transcend such dismissive aesthetic categorization.

Frankly, what I find cliché today are the strained, tissue-thin efforts by many art photographers to appear to "say something". Some really present new visions and techniques. Most (that I encounter) present the most tiresome cliché of all; the "MFA Cliché" I know for fact that many of these folks, expensively arts-educated though they may be, couldn't take a decent cliché photo of Bodie if their lives were hanging in the balance. They know nearly nothing of the craft or tech of photography, as it's simply not taught thoroughly in the schools any longer.

So I raise my glass to all the weekend shooters who might use clichés as templates for their own imagery. Believe me, most of their friends and families will "Oooh!" when they see a personalized cliché spill out of dad's camera.

Have you considered that (on some rare occasions of course) the accusation of "cliche" can be used as a dodge to dismiss work without engaging it?

I totally agree with what Kenneth Tanaka said.

Most of the major painters copied others at the early stages of their careers.

Photographers photographing cliches is just a natural step in their development.

Some photographers take so few photos and are unfocused in their aim (in both a physical and aesthetic sense) that they never get beyond the cliche stage of their photographic development.

This is not a bad or good thing just a fact of busy lives and their own priorities.

Hi, total originality will likely be incomprehensible, but can be very funny!


I think avoiding clichés at any price can become sterile. In classical music they tried this (atonality, dodecaphonism, etc) and it nearly killed the genre. What's more funny is that they created their own clichés. But I digress. What I like is the re-take or re-interpretation of a cliché with a twist. The Lee Friedlander picture is the perfect example of this to me: what's more cliché than taking your own shadow? Almost any photographer did that at one point or another (there are at least 3 groups on Flickr dedicated to this cliché). But rarely as successfully as this one.

I dunno ... eschew cliché, sure, or take an afternoon and embrace the bejeesus out of it. I spent one day awhile back down by the Brooklyn Bridge trying to top one obvious cliché with another, even more obvious one. A game. After while, of course, it's not easy to top yourself, and yes, maybe I was hoping to cross over to the other side.

Funny isn't it how in the West, cliches are such a big no-no. It's this whole striving to be your own individual outlook. I get it and, sure, it can yield some stunning work whatever the field. In contrast, in the East, in the Chinese tradition, for instance, what's similar and familiar isn't feared so much as embraced.

The idea is to refine on what has been acknowledged as standards.

Personally, I think there's something to be said for taking a middle path, incorporating both philosophies. If you really want to talk about cliches, just about every art and every field builds on what is already familiar. To try to find something new just for the sake of being new may lead to flashy but empty techniques.

I think fiction and art revolves around the same few themes that are integral to us as human beings: our existential needs and limitations -- that is to say, longing, love, loss, joy, empathy etc.

Cliches are not in themselves bad; it's the emotional element that marks out the mere cliches from works that are relevant and emotionally resonant. It's this emotional aspect that breathes life into all work, cinematic, photographic, or what have you, no matter how many times they have been visited in the past.

The great themes in life never go out of fashion, after all.

You know the great scene in Life of Brian Mike.....were Brian stand in front of a window after having spend the night with his girlfreind and a crowd has gathered. In his speech he speaks the words "You are all individuals" and the crowd responds unisono "Yes....WE ARE ALL INDIVIDUALS". Clichees are somewhat unavoidable at times. Try to shoot the Grand Canyon without dropping into (IT :-)) no into some chlichee. And if you get back without clichees, chances are people are going to hate you pictures because most people are hooked on clichees, thrive on clichees and wallow in clichees. Listen to the 13 dozen songs in any (even the Alt radiostation) song list. Now then Björk came along and broke the mold untill she was turned into a clichee herself by umpteenth Björkettes. So lurn to love the chlichee and try to expand it a bit. As Andy Gurksky once said when shooting "Hamm Bergwerk Ost". I could take a shot of the "Schwarzkaue" but that would be "ein lapidares architextuur foto". Try to avoid clichees by walking just around them. Ignore the easy and if not possible, well sometimes a little detail can already break a clichee.

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