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Author Topic: The 101 Cliches of Photography  (Read 124946 times)
russell a
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« on: October 21, 2006, 05:01:56 PM »
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101 Cliches of Photography

Years ago, the often cantankerous jazz saxophonist Eddie Harris published, among his other works on musical methodology, a work entitled "The 101 Cliches of Jazz".  In one of my cantankerous moods it occurred to me that Photography could be viewed through a similar lens.

Definition from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

"The term cliché is a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty, especially when at some time it was considered distinctively forceful or novel. It is generally used in a negative context."

So we are speaking here of overused images in photography.  As Mike Johnston pointed out in his 2003 article and the response to that article, beginning photographers are often interested in making photographs that will draw the comment "looks professional" or "looks like a postcard".   Then, this is reinforced in camera clubs as members try to please contest judges who tend to traffic in a narrow set of "rules" by which to judge "good" photographs, and they are reinforced further by a community of peers with similar ambitions.  I would add that the typical camera club member also has a very narrow view of the history of photography, often limited to pretty calendars, nature and/or wildlife magazines, popular photography magazines, Sierra Club publications, etc.  This is all perfectly fine if one is satisfied with engaging in the phtographic equivalent of making needlepoint "Bless This House" samplers.  But for the photographer who wishes to engage the world in a more serious grasp or seeks some level of self-expression exercise of the advice of the legendary art director Alexy Brodovich is required:   "if you look through the viewfinder and see a photo that you've seen before, DON'T TAKE IT!"

Now professional photographers take cliched photos as well - the street photographer, the avant-gardist, no one is really immune.  Photographers who allow market forces to trap them in a recognizable style begin to repeat themsleves and, in essence, their work becomes their own cliche.  A cliche is a combination of subject matter and treatment.  One can take a cliched subject but apply a new treatment that elevates it above the level of the cliche.  Just as in music there are only 12 tones and the constraints of certain psycho-acoustical reactions, there are only a finite number of categories of visual subject matter, although it might be difficult to enumerate them exhaustively.  

So, I propose to begin a list that may stretch to 101 or beyond to 1001 or whatever. You are free to add to this list.   For each identified cliche (which can be either or both subject and treatment) there are historic photos (including perhaps your own, dear reader) that transcend the label of cliche.   If you are sufficiently passionate about some historical photo such that you are moved to mention it, please do so only if you can supply a justification as to why it transcends cliche that is more illuminating than it is just your opinion.  

Gary Winogrand (according to discussions with a former student of his) took the position that effect of stacking up enough cliches in one photo could be transcendent.  An interesting proposition, but tricky, I would say.

I use this kind of thinking in the photos I take.  Being an intense student of the history of photography I am very aware of the legacy that may attach itself to the image in my viewfinder.  The trick is to use this as inspiration to find a way to differentiate the opportunity at hand from the photos that have preceeded us.  Take the potential crush of history and squeeze something new out of the mix.

So, at any rate, here goes!

Sunsets/Sunrises (depends on your sleeping habits I suppose)  Can't we declare a moratorium?

Babies - pretty babies, ugly babies, babies whose facial expressions seem "grown up"

Animals - especially baby animals - puppies and kittens and other furry creature in particular, but all young offspring, including those whose facial expressions
   echo human expressions, this goes double for animals with big eyes, ears, noses, or tongues

Bees on flowers taken with macro lenses, double penalty points for a misplaced shallow depth of field

Autumn Leaves - on trees of course, but double penalty for leaves floating in a stream or lake

Rocks in Sand - with or without water wetting part of the scene or curling around the stones, extra penalty for wisps of seaweed

Reeds in a lake silhouetted against the light of the rising or setting sun

Geometric vistas formed by the patterns of contour farming

White fences - throw in gates, porticos, doorways, arched entrances

Over-saturated photos - this can be a way to double up on a cliched subject

The application of any "artistic" filter effect from Photoshop, ditto above on the doubling up

Weather-beaten barn boards, double penalty for faded red paint

On the street - the homeless, beggars, double penalty for the blind or crippled, triple penalty for the foregoing if holding a musical instrument

Any photo where the subject seems to be the existence of repeated colors within the frame, double penality if the color is red

Vistas of mountaintops fading into the distance, double penalty when combined with a sunset or sunrise

Deer in meadows

Graveyards - double penalty for fog

Blackened skies in daylight photos - have you noticed that in night photos the sky is seldom the blackest part?

Any photo that can be described by invoking the name of a historic photographer (Ansel Adams, Minor White, Diane Arbus - including some of their own.)



I invite you to join in.  This can be fun and marvelously cathartic.
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opgr
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« Reply #1 on: October 22, 2006, 02:32:38 AM »
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- Partially colored B&W. Especially if the color involved is an additive primary. Roses are red, an overall is blue, and the neighbor's grass really isn't getting any greener.

- Diffused nudes or bridal photography. Mutually exclusive of course, otherwise it might actually be interesting for once next time you're invited over to view your best friend's wedding pictures for an hour-and-a-half.

- Scarcely dressed women and motorized vehicles in a single picture. Don't get me wrong, I like women, and I like cars, but to think that the appreciation of either is in any way enhanced by combining the two is an obvious fallacy.
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Oscar Rysdyk
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russell a
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« Reply #2 on: October 22, 2006, 09:01:02 AM »
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opgr -  Excellent.  That's the spirit!  So how about:

Cibachrome emulations - especially of slot canyons with the reds pushed - that plastic look makes me think of bugs cast in acrylic

Graffiti
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Dale_Cotton
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« Reply #3 on: October 22, 2006, 10:30:52 AM »
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Russell: is this a list of cliches or list of weekly/monthly assignments for a photography club, course, or forum? ;)
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russell a
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« Reply #4 on: October 22, 2006, 01:19:43 PM »
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Dale:  Right!  How could one tell the difference?  Except most camera clubs wouldn't include opgr's scantily-clad ladies.  You have put your finger on a tendancy of camera clubs to offer up cliched subject matter nouns as their contest topics.  Seldom does one see a subjective topic such as "a photograph that communicates conflicting emotions" or "a photograph with powerful but ambiguous intent".
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Gordon Buck
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« Reply #5 on: October 22, 2006, 05:49:01 PM »
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After the 101 (or 1001) list is completed, I'd like to see a list of what remains.
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Eric Myrvaagnes
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« Reply #6 on: October 22, 2006, 08:01:02 PM »
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After the 101 (or 1001) list is completed, I'd like to see a list of what remains.
[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=81660\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]
if anything!

Eric
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-Eric Myrvaagnes

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kaelaria
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« Reply #7 on: October 22, 2006, 09:03:04 PM »
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What is going to remain is simple - bad pictures that no one wants to see.  But hey - at least they are original!  

I don't care if you've taken a good picture, your mother took the same and then her brother...that's just 3 good pictures to me.

Where's the magic line when a good picture becomes 'cliche'?  Oh, and who is anyone to say?

I don't think anyone has a right to judge anyone else's image as such.  For example, watching through all the LLVJ, one had the assignment of 'fall coulors'.  The instructions said (paraphrased), 'no pretty pictures, no shots of trees turning colors, we've all seen it before and we don't want more cliches pictures'.  Yet just one or two issues later while reviewing some travel shots the exact shot came up.  Yellow and such colored leaves of fall.  It was now called 'a classic shot' that was liked very much.

The point is, just because you personally don't like to see a certain shot anymore doesn't mean they should not be taken by anyone else, as much as they like.  Some people can't get enough, and every shot is new to someone.
« Last Edit: October 22, 2006, 09:31:38 PM by kaelaria » Logged

alainbriot
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« Reply #8 on: October 22, 2006, 09:34:37 PM »
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After the 101 (or 1001) list is completed, I'd like to see a list of what remains.
[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=81660\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

Very well put.  I was thinking about that when I first read the lists.

I suggest that anyone who posts a list also posts a photo demonstrating what they think is not a cliche.

Alternatively, we could start a list of non-cliches...
« Last Edit: October 22, 2006, 09:35:57 PM by alainbriot » Logged

Alain Briot
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russell a
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« Reply #9 on: October 22, 2006, 10:46:50 PM »
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After the 101 (or 1001) list is completed, I'd like to see a list of what remains.
[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=81660\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

Dear Readers:  Some of you are missing the point.  Remember that either or both (or neither of) subject and treatment are part of what may characterize the overused.  The list of what remains would also subsume the list of cliches!  In other words, for each of the listed items we could provide examples of succesful original photos, where the photographer, either historically fortunate by being first, or by dint of original vision created a photo that rises above the pack of other photographs that could be included in the same subject/treatment slot.  

But, come on, we all know there are cliches - and anyone is welcome to add more instances to the pile of photos, if that's how they want to define themselves - and I am entitled to roll my eyes when I see one.  I haven't said any of your photos are cliches.  If you are offended by my list, then perhaps it's because of suspicions you have about your work.  I am personally not content to take a photo that I know exists - and I take great pains to try to expand my knowledge of what already does exist.  

What attracts the "photographic eye" is remarkably consistent throughout the history of photography, influenced more by technical progress than by differences in what is considered a photographic subject.  Treatments ebb and flow according to fashion and fad (pictorialism, f/64 group, "tough" street photography, etc.)

Back to Eddie Harris' 101 Cliches of Jazz.  Is the jazz player going to be able to avoid all the possible cliches?  No, but awareness means that the player can place them in a context in which they have an altered emphasis and significance.  There is a difference between playing a phrase that every other player has executed just because it "lays under the fingers" or "fits the chord" and using that same phrase as an element in a larger musical idea.  This is akin to the photographer who recognizes a familiar result in the viewfinder and who asks "what can I do differently here?".
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kaelaria
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« Reply #10 on: October 22, 2006, 11:13:17 PM »
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So let's see your gallery of original work
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Robert Spoecker
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« Reply #11 on: October 23, 2006, 12:14:22 AM »
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If I did not shoot cliches I would need only a 64 kb flash card and thus save lots of money.  
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alainbriot
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« Reply #12 on: October 23, 2006, 12:47:16 AM »
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we all know there are cliches - and anyone is welcome to add more instances to the pile of photos, if that's how they want to define themselves - and I am entitled to roll my eyes when I see one.  [a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=81694\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

Pointing to a problem is useful.  Providing a solution to the problem is truly helpful.  I agree that educating people about cliches is by building a list is useful.  However, until you provide examples of cliches and non-cliches and explain why some are cliches and others not, it is not truly helpful.
« Last Edit: October 23, 2006, 12:47:39 AM by alainbriot » Logged

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DiaAzul
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« Reply #13 on: October 23, 2006, 12:50:46 AM »
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One man's cliche is another mans original image - assuming of course it is the first time that he has seen that style before.

If I can't sit with my woman and watch a beautiful sunset or sunrise and still get enjoyment from them both, then where has the poetry gone in life?
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opgr
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« Reply #14 on: October 23, 2006, 02:39:51 AM »
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Please note that we are discussing "clichés" which basically means that the subject has been tried to the point of irrelevance. The importance of a picture doesn't make it less of a cliché. Perhaps we should think more thoroughly about providing appropriate context when submitting a clichéd image.


- Pictures of Soldiers and Victims. With the causes of war these days I fail to differentiate the terms and in my completely misguided sense of irony I would note that the subject has been beaten to death.

- Crying mothers with a dead child. Especially the religiously inclined. In my most gloomy moments I honestly believe(!) that the faithful should know better. Given the concept of heaven, is a child really served by growing up with its mother but a complete lack of decent nourishment, a save environment, and proper education? I'm not denying the bond between mother and child, but I do question the usefulness of further contributions on the subject without proper context.

- Starving children in the arms of ditto parents. What goes into the human race that even at the brink of existence there is room for family planning... hope springs eternal? Of course, it is a completely different story when you're driven from your home into a refugee shelter because of ethnic separation, which goes to show that proper context really is highly relevant.

Some images are enhanced by lack of context. Most aren't.
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kaelaria
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« Reply #15 on: October 23, 2006, 07:11:48 AM »
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Please note that we are discussing "clichés" which basically means that the subject has been tried to the point of irrelevance.
[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=81717\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

Only to you - that's a 100% subjective statement.  That's the point.
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russell a
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« Reply #16 on: October 23, 2006, 08:19:14 AM »
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Pointing to a problem is useful.  Providing a solution to the problem is truly helpful.  I agree that educating people about cliches is by building a list is useful.  However, until you provide examples of cliches and non-cliches and explain why some are cliches and others not, it is not truly helpful.
[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=81709\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

The definition of a cliched photo is very simple: a photograph that differs so little from others that we have seen that the choice among them is an indifferent one.  A non-cliched photograph is one that, in spite of the fact that it may contain subject and/or treatment elements that are known, is executed in such a way that it differentiates itself from others that might be indexed by the same general description.  Example:  Shots of one's children.  The average shot of a child posing for a photo on an outing vs. a Ralph Eugene Meatyard shot.
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russell a
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« Reply #17 on: October 23, 2006, 08:24:13 AM »
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So let's see your gallery of original work
[{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

BTW, pointing at people is very rude.

Below is a link to my gallery. Are there some I think are cliches?  Yes.  Are there some I think that are not?   Yes.  However, the decision for you is up to you.


[a href=\"http://russarmstrong.com/gallery/Master]http://russarmstrong.com/gallery/Master[/url]
« Last Edit: October 23, 2006, 08:26:23 AM by russell a » Logged
kaelaria
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« Reply #18 on: October 23, 2006, 08:38:58 AM »
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Nice gallery - too bad I've seen all of them before!  Oh, and now you admit the choice is up to the viewer!  Good job, you see the light.  And yes, even though I have seen just about all of those shots before, I still don't call them cliches, they are just shots that have been done before.
« Last Edit: October 23, 2006, 08:40:10 AM by kaelaria » Logged

abaazov
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« Reply #19 on: October 23, 2006, 09:11:00 AM »
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The real voyage of discovery consists of not in seeking
new landscapes but in having new eyes.
- Marcel Proust

the pictures will always be the same, only the eyes change.
amnon
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