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Wednesday, 03 June 2015


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One of the joys of looking at photos is finding a clichéd subject done in a fresh way. I've commented several times that all concert photos are alike, and I've made the same comment about fireworks photos. But the only time I've thought to make that comment is when I come across a concert or fireworks photo that contradicts me. The cliché makes the image that much more surprising and delightful.

Here's a concert photo that once prompted my comment: http://bit.ly/1Q6xn0s

I wish I could dig out the fireworks images that prompted my response. It's been too long.

I think that trying to avoid clichés is a waste of time and energy. Good pictures aregood pictures regardless of technique, presentation or subject matter. It is better to try to be true and honest with oneself and the way we like our images without concern of what others might think of our work. Easier said than done.

I have produced my fair share of cliche images. They feel like part of the process of exploration to me. Some people have to work their way through the hackneyed approaches to a subject to get to the original stuff.
It certainly applies to me.
And may I ask why dog pictures didn't make it on to the list?

[No. 20. --Mike]

Mike, the video linked below addresses the topic. If we all only add our voices to the chorus that's enough.


I stand corrected on the matter of mans best friend.

That is challenging. I'm not at all sure I could make an interesting and different photo of the cliche I mentioned (photo shot from a canoe with the bow of the canoe projecting into the bottom of the scene). Maybe if I had a nude in the bow of the canoe. That's probably been done though and anyway it would change the subject matter.

I should also have mentioned the photos of a dock or pier projecting out into the water shot with a very long exposure so that the water is all blurred. And a photographer friend of mine once commented (in response to the then current issue of OP) "If I ever see another photo of Delicate Arche I think I'll puke". Maybe you could pose a nude under the arch. ;-)

In my youth I extended this exercise to include technique cliches and rules: you must use a tripod, rule of thirds, etc. I then went about breaking every rule on the list.
My favourite "rule" (but not a great photo) was that you must use a lens. I used a prism to project a rainbow directly onto the shutter/film of an SLR sans lens. I guess I also checked off the "rainbow" cliche with that one...

Wizened old faces in wide angle with their hovel, hut or home in the shadows behind them!

My photographing method to avoid clichés is to think of every picture of a given theme that I can recall and try to make it different. It isn't always successful, but at least I'm aware there's an originality issue.
It wasn't always like this, though: at the beginning I did many photos that fell into cliché territory. Almost all of them, actually. Somehow I think it was necessary. We all need references: they're like those small wheels on a kid's bike: once you've learned to ride, you can do away with them. Same in photography. Everyone does clichés until they develop a personal take. I don't believe anyone started out making tremendously original pictures from the off.
There might be an issue in that some people will cling to clichés forever. They don't do that just out of lacking imagination, though that could be a factor: they shoot clichés because they want their pictures to be popular and get high levels of appreciation. Alas, such appreciation comes from people who have little ability to recognize a good photograph: they base their judgment on a superficial aesthetic impression. Pictures like sunsets, boardwalks extending into the horizon over a lake, or flowers with lots of 'creamy bokeh' will always be popular because they're easy to grasp. You don't need to delve into it. Put one of those pictures aside W. Eugene Smith's famous portrait of Albert Schweitzer and you'll realize 90% of the people will prefer the cliché.
We who love the art of photography and hate clichés are seen by many as bigoted pricks (can I use this word here?) who think they know better. This kind of reaction doesn't necessarily appear on social networks: you can often read it in dpreview's comment boxes. The clichés we've fastidiously enumerated during the past two days aren't clichés at all for the crowds: they're things of beauty. A macro of a bee over a flower is marvellous for most people, but not for some of us. We are a minority.
Yet I'd bet my life we all started out shooting clichés...

Cliché is also any photographic negative.

A photographer used to have to choose film, format, push or pull, developer, paper, printing techniques, toning, etc. So many choices to form a unique or at least semi-unique style of seeing. Digital cameras have eliminated many of the choices that made photographs and photographers unique. I can't tell the difference between the output of any of the major digital cameras. Of course photoshop has filled in the "style"gap to some extent though not in a way that works for me. If you have a truly unique idea or style, wait to share it with the world until you have enough work to show you are the leader and master of that style. Otherwise you run the risk of losing your individuality.

Pretty much anything shot by Michael Kenna.

A few years ago I attended a presentation at a local camera club by the photography curator of the local fine art museum, one of her examples of an image she selected as an outstanding photograph to purchase for the museum was a new excellent cliche image of the Pemaquid point lighthouse reflected in a tidal pool. The most famous example by Elliot Porter but shot in imitation in under five minutes by everyone with a camera that visits the place since. So sometimes what is cliche to "us" is fresh and new to someone else, even an academic. "Judge not lest ye be judged"

Almost anything can be a cliche -- cliches happen when the subject takes over from the photographer. The interesting thing about any art form is the artist's response to an imaging possibility. When the subject takes over, you've either got journalism (which is good) or a cliche (which isn't.) Every nineteenth century Impressionist and post-Impressionist painted flowers, but nobody painted iris like Van Gogh.

1st snow on the backyard furniture.

Mr. Johnston, you are a clever man indeed.

I know someone who reveres a famous photographer, and who tries to emulate him in his own work. It's not difficult to see the "influence," but what I don't see is his own thumbprint. Your challenge to us is not to eschew clichés, but, especially since clichés are so ubiquitous, to find a way to express our own voice within them.

Thank you.

I found the list of cliches humorous and recognizable but also depressing. But then I thought about the art of writing: the stories we know and love are based on other stories we know and love and this is part of their appeal, they leverage our memory to create something new yet familiar. Perhaps photography can do the same?

How's this (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/06/03/fashion/Summer-Looks-From-Bodhi-the-Menswear-Dog.html) for synchronicity with the current topic?

One thing I find more objectionable than clichés — be they in visual or written form — is the frequent misspelling of "cliché" as "cliche", which is indicative of a certain level of intellectual or linguistic slovenliness.

Such a bastardized spelling, where the e-acute diacritic is missing, would make "cliche" rhyme with "quiche".

The correct spelling — i.e. cliché — properly indicates that the word rhymes with "chez", as in "Chez Panisse".

Around 30 years ago I read somewhere, "Get the cliches out of the way first. Then look again and start getting the less obvious shots", or words to that effect. In other words, we tend to see the obvious shots at first, and don't sweat about shooting them. But look harder for what you really see, then start getting serious.

My rule when shooting is always, "Isolate, simplify." Bypass the tourist shots and look at the details. Works for me.

This reminded me of reading David Alan Harvey's post about his experience shooting a nude:

"I knew nudes were not easy. I remembered this from my drawing class at school. Even skimpy bikini shots from Rio it was absolutely very very difficult to get a real photograph. Sure pleasing to the eye, but to go beyond the obvious takes some work. A male nude seemed almost impossible for me. So my personal status quo was indeed challenged. So to the edge I went."


Ahem, it's all been written, said, sung, painted or clicked before.

A lot of people (me!) know there is an accent but don't spend time looking up the keystroke combinations to produce said accent in an informal email or comment.

You wrote:

...for instance, I know I'll never visit a slot canyon..."

Mike, I think you should visit a slot canyon. Maybe not photograph it—it's been done. The experience is otherworldly; most photos are clichés.

Some of my better slot canyon photographs include the people with whom I am hiking. It adds a perspective that most slot canyon photographs lack. See, for example, the first two images:


The other images in that post qualify as clichés.

For me, cliche shots are something that may not break any ground, but it's mine.

I like to use part of the Rifleman's Creed to explain how I feel about the cliche shots I take:

"There are many like it, but this one is mine."

Sure plenty of people have taken the same picture in a similar way, but I took this one, and it's mine.

Dear Mike,

Thirty years ago, you said:

"We should not be so insecure as to avoid cliches at every turn."

I know, 'cause I wrote it down after you said it to me on your first/only visit to Daly City, after I remarked that this photograph of mine was kind of a cliché:


(the reflection of the sky in water thing. Not the sun, 'cause it's a sunrise, not a sunset, and if there's one thing which isn't a cliché in my life, it's sunrises!)

I wrote it down so I'd never forget it. I haven't.


pax / Ctein
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

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