If your goal is ART, avoid the cliché.
If your goal is MONEY, embrace the cliché.
When I think back on all the photos I did not shoot I have some regrets, I should have shot more. I should have shot the obvious ones, the first things I saw, the clichés. I tried too hard and took a pass on the easy ones. I thought of myself as an Artist with a capitol ‘A,’ too good, too smart, too advanced and way too cool to take the easy shots. In my avoidance of the cliché, I inadvertently avoided a lot of money! A unique, original or innovative approach to a subject may bring critical acclaim but a trite expression or idea brings money. In my later years I learned to embrace the cliché, but for most of my professional life I’ve avoided clichés for fear of being labeled ‘unoriginal.’
There were times when I was working commercially when the cliché was the goal. When working with advertising clients I was often ‘forced’ to produce clichéd images. I tried my best to convince my clients that we could accomplish their visual goals without resorting to cliché but most of the time I lost the argument. Advertising clients are risk-adverse and are devout inside-the-box thinkers. Within their own self-imposed zone of acceptability they were looking for ‘their version’ of an already-acceptable image. So I gave it to them. I had no problem facilitating their cliché-dreams because I was paid to do so. It’s a job, I’m a hired gun, here’s your cliché, thanks for the check. The only time I created cliché images on spec was occasionally in the 1980s and 1990s when I was earning the bulk of my income through the licensing of stock photos. Inexpensive, already-produced stock photos fulfill the needs of no- to low-budget clients and their needs are most often for something they can ‘relate’ to, as in pre-approved, already seen clichés. Stock photo clients, like the ad agencies and so many other commercial picture-users don’t really want to expend much energy ‘thinking’ about an image. They use images that require little to no thought and convey their message quickly as one flips through magazine pages, barely paying attention. (Nowadays, there’s less flipping of magazine pages and more ‘scrolling’ of websites. Cliché, relatable, seen-it-before and simple imagery works best on tiny screens viewed by high-speed scrolling.) The stock photography market demands clichés and you can make money at it if the client chooses your cliché from the thousands of similar clichés offered. Yeah, they’re all basically the same so you’d better hope someone clicks on yours, otherwise you’re just another in a sea of sameness.
When I transitioned away from commercial photography to fine-art in the early 2000s I thought I was done with clichés (not that I’d done that many). As a fine artist I’d be following my own, anti-cliché aesthetic exclusively and avoiding hackneyed, commonplace and banal imagery altogether. New, original and innovative was my goal. I tried very hard to create new images, in a new way from things we already know. To accomplish this I was constantly rejecting the familiar, exploring the unknown, trying to see ‘old things with new eyes,’ and continually narrowing and narrowing my ‘vision’ to find, or create, the unique things I’d not seen before. This is not an easy task and requires a great deal of mental effort ---and it’s an effort that few artists, and even fewer viewers, care to undertake.
There are clichés and forms of clichés everywhere and there’s some subjects that, essentially, are clichés no matter what. A cliché is the result of two main factors, familiarity and comfort. Everybody’s comfortable with the familiar. Because everybody’s a photographer nowadays the ‘photography workshop’ business has exploded. Now you can write a big check to spend a week with a bunch of photographers, just like yourself, all go to the same place, at the same time, and take the same picture. Everybody in the workshop can get ‘their’ version of whatever cliché the workshop is about. Go to Yosemite and find Ansel Adams’ tripod marks! Go to Antarctica and photograph penguins that look like every other photo of penguins ever shot! Guides will show you where to place your camera in Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, The Palouse, Death Valley or any other pretty place on Earth. Your resulting pictures will in no way be original but they’ll be your very own version of that picture you saw and everybody already liked! And your images are critic-proof too because we’ve already seen that shit a thousand times and we like it. A purveyor of clichés can be ‘creative’ and risk-free all at the same time! You may feel good about winning a camera-club photo contest with your clichéd, hackneyed photo but you ain’t gettin’ a gallery show.
Or, maybe you will. Part of my motivation for writing this now is the rejection I got from a gallery earlier today. It seems the gallery was seeking clichés and I stupidly submitted fine-art. I’ve seen it so many times it’s laughable, I call it ‘the big, hairy-but rejection.’ It goes like this: “…your work is amazing, but…,” “…really cool stuff, but…,” “…beautiful photography, but…” Whatever comes after “but” means you’re not getting to show. In this particular case I had a conversation with the gallerist who said she was seeking “…salable landscape imagery that’s a little different…” OK, I’ve got that, I have a series of surreal landscape imagery that’s been exhibited often enough to have developed a positive sales history and I submitted it to the gallery. My works were rejected in favor of, “…the downtown and surrounding area in order to sell… If you shoot some local stuff...I am really interested!!!!” What she said and what she meant were two very different things. The talk was about unique fine-art but the walk showed she really wanted ‘postcard art.’ The worst advice was, “…shoot some local stuff....I am really interested.” Decoded that means make pictures you wouldn’t have otherwise (make her pictures) and maybe I’ll include it in my clichéd offerings of downtown pictures.” That’s terrible advice and no artist should follow it. If you do, all you’ll accomplish is shooting pictures you don’t like, on spec, for someone who’ll most likely reject your works anyway. Unless it’s a commercial job and you’re guaranteed to get paid, don’t do that shit!
Just for fun I once entered an online photo competition with the subject matter of barns. To me a barn is a cliché in and of itself. You can hardly take a picture of a barn that’s not a cliché. A barn is just a cliché-ready object. I recall shooting the photo (and no, I don’t ‘capture’ ‘images,’ I shoot photos), in the middle of a green field was a red barn with a blue sky above it. I raised the camera to my eye, looked through the lens and thought, well that’s a fuckin’ cliché, I shouldn’t shoot this. But I did anyway while promising myself I’d never show it to anyone. Then the photo competition came along and I thought I’ve got the cliché they’re looking for and entered. And I won! Great, now I was being rewarded for taking the stupidest, most ordinary, unimaginative picture ever! All the photographs I work so hard to make original are for naught while the lamest, stupidest and most pedestrian of them all is held up as ‘award winning.’ The most astonishing thing were the comments: “beautiful… amazing… fantastic… fabulous… wonderful.” I thought, really, seriously? It’s a fucking barn! I guess people just love things they’ve already seen before. Oh well, the subject was the barn-cliché and I had the ‘best’ cliché.
What I eventually learned after a lifetime of making photographs is that, as much as they say they appreciate innovation, people are really comfortable with what they already know about ---clichés! This includes the so-called fine-arts as well.
My advice to young artists working in any medium is to go ahead and shoot, paint or otherwise create the cliché. Don’t actively work at it but do it when the cliché presents itself. Make your own art and do the clichés too. That way if your incredibly original fine-art fails to find an audience you’ll have something to fall back on.