A cliched photo

Above: A classic photo-cliche. Credit: Nout Gons.

I Feel Like I've Seen This Before

The indispensable ethos, or characteristic spirit, of creative photography is a reverence for originality. Originality is opposed to cheese-and-cliche. Originality emerges from experimentation and openness-to-innovation. Originality in image-making is the basic goal in creative photography--just the same as it is the goal in song-writing, novel-writing, or musicianship.*

Originality is synonymous with the intrinsic uniqueness of each human-being: every single human is inherently unique, and so then it logically follows that each one's creative spirit is also unique and actually original. There is no need in photography for more cheese-and-cliche in image making. There is no need to add more to the pile of cheesy over-familiar photo-images. A photo which depends on a well-known photo convention is essentially redundant.

For some photographers, there is, it seems, an overwhelming attraction towards making a cliche (just as rockers trying guitars in Denmark Street guitar-shops are drawn somehow inexorably to try out any instrument under review by bashing out the riff of Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water).

This attraction-to-cliche goes against the grain of the search for an original "voice." The urge to make a cliche can be thought of as a force--a noxious force that undermines and diminishes the creative innovator. A force that often seems to insidiously invade and gain presence. The creative photographer particularly in the early stages must be in a state of constant vigilance and awareness of the silent creeping force of the banal and the conventional. Hi-jacking and re-purposing James Wilson's characterization of the editorial policy of his The Economist, we might argue that the creative photographer is "taking part in a severe contest between originality, which presses forward, and unworthy, timid banality, obstructing his progress."

George Orwell, thinking about good-practice in prose-writing, offered the following golden rule for writers: "Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." Sometimes I have students who question and counter this basic argument: what is wrong with cliche if that is what I want to do? My answer is this: a cliched photo will not function successfully to arouse the interest of an audience; the photo will appear to the viewer as already familiar ("deja vu"). The photo will not fascinate or captivate the viewer as intended: there will be a definite disconnect between the viewer's reaction and (unrealistic) artistic expectation. My colleague Dr James Miller refers to use of the same in creative writing as "dead language" (a.k.a. "deja lu").

Above all, there is absolutely no logical reason to make a photo which has been made a thousand (or a million) times before; artistically, the activity is completely superfluous. The primary function of such photos is not artistic anyway, but ritualistic, like when we automatically take a photo of a famous tourist site or a stunning sunset. The urge to snap at such moments is not a creative response at all, it is more like a Pavlovian reflex.


*It is tempting to offer postmodernist art as the exception here, however, upon inspection, the oeuvres of Prince, Koons, Sherman, Condo, Levine, Richter etc. adhere to the rule of originality--the art of these artists remains astonishing and very definitely unique.

(29 December 2018)