Saturday, June 20, 2015

Cliché in Photography, or Are No Photographs New?

The small and very beautiful Czech town Český Krumlov was first mentioned in documents in 1253 and was included in 1992 on a UNESCO's List of World Cultural and Natural Heritage.
There are several meanings of the word “to shoot”, including: “to fire a bullet from a gun/to discharge an arrow from a bow”, “to take a photograph”…
 So, I was standing at the embrasure of the Český Krumlov fortress, ready to shoot (to take photos), thinking about the defenders of the fortress who were ready to shoot (to fire bullets from the guns or to discharge arrows from the bows?) many-many years ago.
I know that landmarks are in the list of clichés. I know that there are many hundred thousand photographs of Český Krumlov. I’m not sure that there’s no photograph which looks alike, but it was my idea, my view, I didn’t see the same photograph before…I had a right to respond to this ancient fascination, hadn’t I? And everybody has the same right, even if we’ll receive the next photograph which someone calls a cliché.
“The cliché comes not in what you shoot but in how you shoot it.”
(David duChemin)
So let's define what we mean by “cliché”:
1) a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox.

2) (in art, literature, drama, etc.) a trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.

3) anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse. 

Let’s begin with the 2nd meaning: “a trite or hackneyed plot”. How many plots can be in art, literature, drama? There’s a limited number of plots – that is the right answer.

Carlos Gozzi and Georges Polti  thought there were 36 dramatic situations.

Christopher Booker considered that there are seven basic plots.
Though his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories  has received a lot of negative reviews, now thanks to computers, researchers have evidence that there are six basic book plots about 90 percent of the time. 

How many books are there in the world? “After we exclude serials, we can finally count all the books in the world. There are 129,864,880 of them. At least until Sunday.”(Says Google) (read more here).

Is it possible for every book not to be a cliché with six (or seven) basic plots? In my opinion we can give the answer in the affirmative for many-many books (but not for all of them).

And what about photography? Are there any basic plots (topics, situations, assignments) in photography?

I didn’t find any serious work on this theme as it was Booker’s work about literature. But there are two articles in Wikipedia: Photography by genre (read more here) and Photography by topic (read more here).

We can see that some genres and topics coincide:

  Photography by genre (type):
abstract photography, action shot, analog photography, candid photography, close-up, conceptual photography, concert Photography, documentary photography, fine-art photography, food photography, high key, low key, macro photography, medical photography, monochrome photography, high-speed photography, photojournalism, portrait photography, snapshot (photography), still life photography, stock photography, social photography, tele-snaps.

Photography by topic:
erotic photography, landscape photography,‎ long-exposure photography, mug shot, nature photography‎, nude photography‎,  rail transport photography‎, ruins photography, selfie, spirit photography, sports photography‎, wedding photography‎.

Photography by genre/topic:
aerial photography, architectural photography, astrophotography, aviation photography, cloudscape photography, fashion photography, fireworks photography, glamour photography, lifestyle photography, night photography, panoramic photography, star trail, street photography, travel photography, underwater photography, war photography.

Thus, there are about 50 main genres and topics in photography. And how many photographs are people taking each year using pro cameras, camera-phones, etc.? Billions of photographs (read more here and here).
So is it easy to be original, to create an interesting image which no one will dare to call a cliché? So many things have been done in photography that I’m afraid it’s not easy to create anything truly original anymore.

Photography is subjective, and opinions on what is cliché and what is not are subjective too.

Here’s the list of topics which are considered to be clichés by many people (photographers and those who are not photographers at all):

Sunset and sunrise.
Star trails.
A lonely tree.
The bokeh portrait.
Selective color.
Soft water.
A toddler with face smeared with dirt or food.
A headless nude.
A homeless.
Overmanipulation. Unnecessary post proceeding.
An arm’s length selfie.
Landmarks.
Flowers.
Pets.

 “Photographers who come up with power never get accused of imitating anyone else even though they photograph the same broom, same street, same portraits.” Minor White

If you’ve lived long enough then everything is a cliché: feelings, music, fashion, movies, etc.. There’s nothing new under the sun...

So the point is to enjoy life, to make every image you want and to forget calling things clichés.

Thank you for reading! Stay tuned!