On composition, part 14: Clichés

[This was originally intended as an article, many years ago, but I’m resurrecting it here because it fits the bill.]

Once anyone gets into photography in a serious way, especially if they begin investigating the artistic aspect of it, the topic of photographic clichés comes up. And it’s a loaded topic. The definition of a cliché is something that has become overly commonplace, hackneyed, and trite. Thus the implication is that producing a photographic cliché is a bad thing, to be avoided at all costs for the sake of art.

This is a trap, pure and simple, and one you should be careful of falling into. The trap is not of producing a cliché, in and of itself, but of worrying about it. Here’s why:

It’s almost impossible to avoid producing an image that someone, somewhere, will not call a cliché. Photography has been around a long time now, going through numerous different permutations and being handled by untold thousands of people. Most techniques have been tried before, and virtually every subject has been explored, often in great depth. Going through the effort of discovering something that hasn’t been done previously may mean an awful lot of research and stress, and in the end, are you producing something of value to anyone?

We respond to many photos because they strike something familiar to us. And of course, when you’re aiming to appeal to a broad group of people, you have to strike something familiar to all of them. This narrows down how many approaches you can actually use. One example: baby photos. And often, baby anything. We’re inundated with countless numbers of these, but we also know that they will remain popular, especially with anyone that possesses a maternal instinct.

Remember, too, that many elements of composition have been arrived at because they are almost universal in appeal. In other words, people don’t respond to them because they’ve been trained to, but because it’s instinctual. Because of this, those elements get used very frequently. This doesn’t make them bad – far from it. It demonstrates good photographic habits by knowing how and where these will work best and using them to their advantage.

It can be argued that this is not what is meant by “clichés,” but instead, certain subjects or approaches. Flower shots. Long exposures of waterfalls that turn the water cottony white. Black & white form studies of nudes, or high-contrast portraits of elderly people. Any of these, and many more besides, can earn a sneer from someone who has any kind of background in art. Chances are, they’ve seen hundreds of such examples before, and quite likely, better ones as well. And to some extent, such a response has a degree of merit. If you’re trying to stand out with your photography, you have to display some originality, something to identify photos as your own, rather than blending in with others. And this is to be encouraged. Most especially, you would want to avoid copying the work of others, or falling into a style that has been done in great detail before. These might prevent you from getting any recognition whatsoever.

But be wary of the ‘art world.’ It is a sinister place where the dividing line between following an approved style, and shamelessly copying other works, can snap back and forth according to whim. And in many cases, it has no bearing whatsoever on what might appeal to the broadest range of people, and thus sell very readily. Many professional photographers know that originality often takes a backseat to what people want to buy. Countless wedding and portrait photographers make comfortable livings off of producing package after package of the same shots, over and over again. They know that traditions and fads often dictate what people expect to see, and that this system has been around for ages.

Others eschew this and opt for a unique approach, and some of them make it work very well. But many have found that the competition from bulk outlets shows that the customers aren’t driven by originality too often, and that sales are often dictated by the nature of the customer, the marketing approach, and the other options within an area. So it’s not always the content of the image or the skill behind it. It bears noting that many things considered cliché arrived there because of their popularity, and that fashion, fads, memes, best sellers, and related concepts do not exist because originality is paramount; just the opposite.

So many photographers have found that they have to forsake the ‘artistic’ side of their pursuits in order to produce photos that the clients will buy readily. These might very well be trite or hackneyed, but does it matter if the client is willing to purchase it? Remember, the ‘Starving Artist’ is a cliché too (as is the ‘Art Snob.’)

You have to find the balance point that you’re comfortable with. If you’re after sales, you produce the images that sell the best, and it really doesn’t matter if they’ve been done before. If you’re trying to create art, or become a photographer known for a unique style, then you certainly have to invest your time and efforts into originality. As long as it isn’t originality for its own sake, ignoring the idea that appealing to a fair number of people might actually be a wise move. Believe it or not, this attitude is more prevalent than is often suspected.

And if you’re doing photography as a hobby, primarily for your own satisfaction, choose the subjects and approaches with which you’re most comfortable. Does this mean sunsets and butterflies? Then go for it. Sunsets and butterflies have become clichés, to some, precisely because people like them so much, and in the long run, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you try to avoid that in its entirety, you end up producing images nobody likes. And that can’t be good.