The Cliché in Photography

© Irina Rozovsky, from the series "My Mother and Other Things from the Sky"

As an undergraduate painting student at Boston’s MassArt, I studied under a recent teaching arrival who created his own ad lib studio rules on the first day of class instead of doing the typical reciting of the official rules handout. Among his spontaneously created rules: try not to do drugs in the studio. An...interesting first interaction, perhaps, but the professor turned out over the course of the year to be a sort of sensei: slow and calm with an incisive eye.

During one particular mid-semester class we sat to critique the paintings of a student who had returned to college at a late middle age. He had placed on the wall – yet again – a handful of paintings of his cats. Most of the students in the room felt a degree of anguish looking out over the paintings, embarrassed for him and struggling to maintain a conversation while inwardly frustrated that we, the serious painters, were stuck critiquing a guy painting his fucking cats.

The professor understood well what the dynamics were in the room - and the real problem at hand. He moved to address it in a few well-drawn sentences.

He pointed out that the majority of us – most of whom were creating brainy abstract work created with inspiration from Radiohead and wine we’d snuck into the studio (hey, inspiration-in-a-five-dollar-box isn't what he meant by drugs) for all-night painting sessions - were in terms of content painting very similarly to each other and also very much within a branch of Abstract Expressionism developed 40 years prior. He asked us if our work at this point in history was really any more or less derivative or cliché than painting your cats.

This revelation-via-rhetorical-question was no less stunning to me at that moment than a 10-year-old believing the woman on stage has actually been sawn in half: all of the "serious" painters working together late nights were painting more or less on par in terms of the collective and historic art conversation as cat man.

All of this is to getting me to ask: HDR photos of city skylines? The rainbow at sunset? Pigeons? How are they more cliché and more predicable than the 6x6 or 6x7 blank-eyed camera-staring portrait? Or Grahamesque two- or three-image sequences? Or massive 50 by 60 inch prints of Chinese landscapes - preferably of a misty, polluted river - in a Chelsea gallery? Is a cliché in one area of photography or inside one community really any different than the clichés of another? When and how does visual language lose power - or even meaning - through repetition? Who defines cliché and how does the process work?

We create a collective definition of beauty and value in contemporary aesthetics by socially negotiating a definition between each other in a singular cultural context. The art world works to define aesthetics, but so too do other communities. I was reminded of this by a great aunt of my wife who, paging through a copy of Alec Soth’s Dog Days Bogotá pulled from my shelf, was shocked by how ugly the images were. She, on the other hand, loves contemporary paintings of Jesus Christ and high-key paintings of flowers that I – best guess here – imagine Alec Soth may not love so much, at least not unironically.

There's not a single global visual language any more than there’s a single spoken language. Cliché is a community identification arrived upon within a given context of aesthetic navigation. Perhaps counterintuitively, there are no universal clichés. Universal clichés would require alignments between interpretations of visual ideas in a myriad of contextual spaces, a virtual impossibility. Aesthetic reception varies widely based on viewing context: some Japanese pop songs may seem sentimental to a US audience, for example, whereas minimalism may seem profoundly simple through the lens of popular culture.

Instead, ideas of cliché shift between cultural and physical spaces, not just between classes and educational backgrounds - as in differences between high and popular culture - but also between countries, parts of the same country, rural and urban, generations, subcultures, ethnic groupings…the list is long. These differences are only problematic when a community applies their own sense of tired and trite to the visual language of another community. The understandings of a visual element are not universal - reading an element of one context with the understanding of another is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way we interact with images.

Cliché not only shifts between communities but also changes through time. Think of visual ideas as paths. As a path becomes congested, the visual expression or element experiences a reduction in meaning and impact by use. Alternatively, as paths become abandoned, the grass and trees grow back and it can suddenly seem a fresh visual idea again, appealing in the limited traffic that passes through it. I've seen this recently, for example, in conversations I’ve had with a number of photographers who are interested in black and white because it seems new again.

Another function of time in relation to cliché is the measure of how long an idea takes to tire. The acceleration of life in contemporary society coupled with our culture of cool jaded cynicism in the West has - empirically - created a problem in which ideas tire more quickly than in the past. It seems that we are more quickly dismissing ideas as exhausted than previously and that there is almost a power and status generated by being one of the first to declare something "dead" or "over."

The sense of cliché can come from a number of different parts within the image making process. Clichéd images can be called as such based on the expression of a subject in terms of technique (think paint on velvet) or form (think centrally placed, "objective"-style architectural images), but also based on the subject matter itself. I would argue that the expression is more the determinant of cliché than the subject matter of the image, although all three parts of the picture making process - technique, form, content - can deliver you to the doorstep.

To make my point, consider the lead image by Irina Rozovsky. If I tell you pigeons are a cliché of street photography, you'd probably nod your head. In the right hands, however, the expression and idea of the image of a pigeon can be profound, despite the sea of images of pigeons. The bird, caught between resting and flight, falling without stretching its wings, seems unfamiliar again, seems suddenly a vital way to discuss the easily crossed line between life and death, the seeming lack of gravity in the image a way to evoke questions about the nature of reality itself, the white napkin on the ground below echoing the shape of the pigeon gives an idea of time as we imagine it as a prevision of the fallen bird on the concrete.

The lesson of my painting teacher holds true with the image by Rozovsky - it's not the cat or the pigeon as subject that marks cliché; it's the treatment we give it and what we use it to say. Expression overrides subject matter frequently, though not always.

That being said, some areas of art and photography are harder to work within than others in regards to ideas of repetition which leads to - at its extreme - cliché. That is to say, some paths are more historically trodden than others. Larry Sultan in a critique once talked with us about the heavy history of landscape, how its very long tradition within visual arts means finding a vision within it that can contribute to the conversation is that much harder. On the other hand, new paths push visual language in new directions and are fundamental to the process of expanding ideas of photography, but we quickly in contemporary life reach a sense of cliché – witness Google Street View projects – without more to the project than technique and form.

The same professor I began this piece with told me once that if what I am doing is currently out of fashion in galleries, wait a while and it will be in fashion again. This idea of aesthetic cycles seems to me an important part of the conversation around "progress" in visual arts discussed in a series of posts last year on this site. Cycles as a model, however, doesn’t quite provide space for the importance of images and projects that strengthen and expand our ways of using photography more than others when re-passing through an established area of the medium. Instead, the model of a spiral works better. We retrace similar concepts and aesthetic predilections periodically, but at the same time we do so in different ways so that while they overlap they are not actually going through the same space.

I think that's how we can look at an interesting question - why is one subject a motif or tradition while another is a cliché? A motif or tradition retraces a point without going over the exact point again, but instead moves over the point at a different place in space as a spiral going either forward or backward. A cliché, alternatively, doesn't expand forward or backward through space, but rather repeats the circle exactly.

Practically for photographers, what this means is the vital importance of being culturally aware of what is going on around you. This is an argument to know other photographers, to complement and expand on their statements while not repeating them. It's also an argument, perhaps, to look to expression as a guide for expanding photography as much as to content - a project doesn't need to rely on obscure subject matter from uncovered areas of the world. It needs, more than anything, to be thought through personally and deeply to arrive at our own vision - the one thing we can truly guarantee is not cliché.