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Backcountry Photography

A Few Good Words for Clichés Red Sun at Night

By Tamia Nelson

March 4, 2014

I couldn't put it off any longer. The contents of the many metal trays of slides* that had been gathering dust on my office shelves for years had to be cataloged and digitized. It promised to be quite a job. There were thousands of the little cardboard squares in all, documenting some 20 years of my life. But procrastination was no longer an option. I'd already postponed the chore too many times. So I sat myself down, opened the first tray, and began to sort the slides by subject. Scenics in one pile. Portraits in another. Wildlife shots in a third. And so on. And on. And on…

One thing was immediately apparent. Many of the photos in the piles before me would be gleefully disparaged by "serious" photographers, who'd be quick to dub them …

Clichéd Images

Most of us think of clichés as linguistic Bondo, platitudinous phrases and moldy metaphors used to fill holes in a narrative, without making any demands on the writer's wit or ingenuity. To no one's surprise, therefore, clichés are roundly condemned by editors and critics alike, not to mention all careful writers. Nonetheless, like most careful writers, I make frequent use of them — while simultaneously damning what I see as the clichéd writing of others. (This is known as eating your cake and having it, too.)

A case in point: The reduction of "awesome" and "passionate" to meaningless utterances comes in for my particular scorn. You could even say that I'm passionate in my loathing for the emasculation of language exemplified by the labeling of commonplace photos — any photos, for that matter — as "awesome." The towering waves that accompany a Force 10 blow at sea are indeed awesome. But a photo of those waves, no matter how expertly composed and meticulously exposed, is … well … just a photo. Don't get me wrong. The whale‑road of the heaving sea (an Old English cliché, as it happens) invariably inspires awe in the hearts of mariners, whether they skipper kayaks or container ships. This is not true of its two‑dimensional image, however, even when that image is displayed on a 27‑inch monitor. The sea is awesome, in other words; the photo is not.

All of which being said, clichés are not always meaningless gibber. Many are useful linguistic sheet anchors. If nothing else, they save time for both readers and writers. And some are vivid expressions that ground otherwise wooly and indistinct notions in something tangible. Contrast "pared to the bone" — a cliché, certainly  — with "reduced to its essentials," or worse yet, "downsized." I know which of these I prefer, and I'd imagine you do, too. Even George Orwell, who was scathing in his denunciation of "dying metaphors," and who gave the phrase "ring the changes on" as one example of what he called the "swindles and perversions" of modern English, immediately muddied the waters by proclaiming the importance of concrete images derived from real life. But "ring the changes" is just such an image. It forges a link between the etiolated world of the printed page and the rich tapestry of sensual experience. As does "pared to the bone," at least for anyone who's ever carved a turkey.

A little history may serve to further explain the utility of the cliché. Back in the day, when printing meant spreading ink on cast metal letters and then pressing the inked letters onto paper, blocks of text were built up from individual slugs of type, one slug to each letter. But when printers recognized that a certain phrase was cropping up again and again, they cast the entire phrase as a single block of type, retaining it for future use. These time‑ and work‑saving cast blocks were called clichés.

In other words, literary clichés are nothing more or less than commonplace expressions, chosen out of habit or laziness, or because they retain some small part of their original force. And the same thing can be said of photographic clichés. The "sunset over the lake" photo is an obvious example. While it's certainly not true that if you've seen one sunset, you've seen them all, there is an undeniable sameness in sunset photos. But does this diminish their value to the photographer? Certainly not. It may even enhance the viewers' emotional response.

In short, familiarity breeds cliché, and the tag says nothing about the aptness of an expression or the quality of an image. Take Ansel Adams' iconic black‑and‑white photos of the American West. These were much celebrated when they first appeared in print, and they remain the stuff of countless essays and classroom presentations. But the acclaim which greeted their original publication can't be attributed to their artistic merit alone. It had as much to do with the fact that the critics were often seeing Adams' landscapes for the first time. Nowadays, when photos of Half Dome and the Teton Range — many of them technically flawless and perfectly composed — are two a penny and available at the click of a mouse, these same images have become clichés. They've been reduced to the status of fungible goods.

Which doesn't mean that images of fiery sunsets and full moons rising over high mountains are unimportant. After all, they may evoke profoundly moving associations in their makers' minds, as well as in the minds of many onlookers. Moreover, it's worth considering the enormous range of subjects that risk being condemned as clichés solely because they are now so familiar:

The Great Outdoors

• Sunrises and sunsets
• Cloudscapes
• The full moon
Moonrise over [fill in the blank]
• Empty roads
• Empty park benches
• Lone trees on bare hillsides
• Mountains lit by alpenglow
Time exposures of rapids
• Ditto of clouds
Autumn leaves
• Trees in leaf, shot from below
Reflections in still water
• Cows in a water meadow

In Camp and on the Water

• Campfires
• Your tent, lit from within
• Your tent from inside
• The camp cook stirring the pot
• A boat's wake in still water
• A boat poised above a drop
• Boats emerging from the mist
• Grinning angler, gasping fish

This is Your Life

• Your dog, cat, or hamster
• Eyes, yours or your pet's
• Your kids, eating or playing
• Your shadow
• Yourself (selfie, anyone?)
• Your reflected self
• Plump lips, pouting or half‑open
• Your dinner

The Living World

• Bees, bugs, and butterflies
• Flowers
• Water droplets on same
• Cute baby animals

Techniques and Styles

Close‑ups and macros
• Pronounced vignetting
• Blown centers
• Obvious HDR
• Silhouettes of anything
Black‑and‑white digital shots
• Abstracts
• Ersatz Polaroids
• Post‑processed frames

It's a long list, yet it's neither complete nor comprehensive. For example, I've left out rust‑streaked girders, cars (both derelict wrecks and showroom‑shiny centerpieces), and nudes (mostly female), as well as trendy technical tricks like the Dutch angle and just about anything that someone, somewhere, has been able to do with Photoshop. In short, I'm reminded of satirist Tom Lehrer's cogent observations on the topic of smut, from a song of the same name: "When correctly viewed, everything is lewd." He's probably right, too. And much the same thing could be said about almost any photographic subject under the sun. Everything is a photo cliché in the making.

The bottom line?

Clichés are Where You Find Them

And you'll find them wherever people congregate. If something interests you and your buddies and your buddies' buddies, and if you all photograph that something — whatever it might be — at every opportunity, you're contributing to the ever‑lengthening list of photographic clichés.

Of course, bad photos — whether badly composed or badly exposed or both — are still bad. Until someone with a clever publicist and a good marketing plan creates a demand for badly composed, badly exposed photos, that is. Then they're good photos. Or at least they're good investments. But photographic clichés don't need any help from a publicist. They're clichés for a reason: They're popular.

Take sunrises and sunsets, for instance. We humans have been making images of the sun since we started drawing on cave walls, and for good reason. In the world of our ancestors, a world without electric lights and central heating, night was terribly dark and (often) achingly cold. The sun literally brought light and warmth into our ancestors' lives. As it does into the lives of chilly paddlers today. That being the case, it's easy to see why we feel an urge to commemorate the sun's comings and goings by fixing them in some tangible form.

So it goes. Every photo we take has meaning for us. Why else do we burden ourselves with cameras? (Even a cell phone camera imposes a burden of sorts, if only in the time lost in taking pictures.) Nothing lasts forever. Ancient woodlands are consumed by fire or flattened by windstorms, or bulldozed to make way for second‑home developments. Wildernesses are transformed into open‑pit mines to feed our need for more and more shiny stuff and quench our cars' unquenchable thirst. Living rivers are stilled by dams, their rapids drowned beneath the waters of newly created lakes. Paddling buddies move away, develop other interests, or die.

Nothing lasts forever. Sooner or later, only our photos remain to jog our remembrance of things past. That these images are clichés is neither here nor there.

Are such reflections on life's transience too melancholy? Perhaps they are. They certainly ignore the role that photography plays in enhancing present pleasures. Photography is fun, after all, for both photographer and subject. Even today, when electronic wonders are the stuff of everyday life, there's still an element of magic in the business of conjuring exact likenesses out of thin air. What does it matter if others would label the end product a cliché?

OK. I hope I've convinced you that to call an image clichéd is not to damn it beyond redemption. But that's not to say we can't all hope to transcend the commonplace, at least now and then. Which is why I suggest we next consider …

How to Breathe New Life Into Tired Visual Tropes

Is it really possible to shoot an overfamiliar subject in a way that's both novel and interesting? Happily, it often is. The secret lies in the setup. Consider the following:

  • Vantage Point 
  • Perspective 
  • Angle of View 
  • Orientation 

I've discussed these in some detail before, and rather than plowing an already tilled field, I'll simply revisit my earlier article:

Each of these variables influences the appearance  — and the emotional impact  — of a shot. Your vantage point is simply the spot you shoot from, whereas your perspective is determined by the angle of the shot. Are you looking down on your subject? Or up at it? It makes a difference. Angle of view is easy to confuse with perspective, but it's not the same thing at all. It represents your breadth of vision. It can be narrow and tight or broad and inclusive, and to a very large degree it's controlled by your choice of lens, with wide‑angle lenses offering a wider window on the world. Orientation, on the other hand, can be changed at will. Hold your camera level and the resulting image is wider than it is high. This is "landscape" orientation. Turn the camera 90 degrees, however, and you're shooting in "portrait" mode: The image will be tall and narrow. Needless to say, and despite the misleading name, you can also use portrait mode to shoot landscapes.

A few examples from my own photo collection follow. Every one of them could be labeled a photographic cliché. But I've done what I could to lift them out of the ordinary. You'll have to decide if I've succeeded.

The first image is a double‑barreled cliché, in fact, since it combines sunrise and silhouette:

Misty Morning

Whatever your final judgment, I think we can agree that it's not a "typical" sunrise shot. I took it one misty summer morning along an Adirondack river. The ascending sun infuses the scene with an ethereal glow, while the leafy foreground anchors the shot in the here and now. Furthermore, a clinging mist softens all the outlines and a wide‑open aperture creates pleasing bokeh. You can't hear the mergansers croaking in the distance, obviously, but I do. I can even smell the rich fragrance of decay arising from the peaty forest floor. In other words, the photo may not escape being labeled a cliché, but it's none the worse for that.

Next, how about a picture of a cute animal? Every established campsite is home to legions of camp robbers, and here's a mug shot of one such perp, an eastern chipmunk. Countless similar photos exist, to be sure, but seldom does the photographer find herself the object of such close inspection by her subject, who appears simultaneously shy and (cautiously) inquisitive.

I Have You in My Eye

Why black‑and‑white? Well, it seemed fitting, perhaps because it accords well with the conventions of formal portraiture, in the manner of Yousuf Karsh. Come to think of it, the chipmunk's expression also has just a hint of stern impatience, not unlike that seen in Karsh's famous portrait of Churchill. Was this my unconscious mind's way of re‑minding me that camp robbers are, after all, just creatures with a living to get, and that their cute antics are really a matter of life and death — for them, at any rate? It's possible.

One last example: An upward‑looking shot of trees on the bank of The River after a chilly night, their branches still clothed in hoarfrost:

Ice Palace

Such shots are legion, I know, but by choosing to compose the shot so that the trees grew down from the top of the frame, rather than up from the bottom, I invested this clichéd image with a certain novelty. The flakes of sun‑loosened frost drifting across the scene helped, too. (Did you think they were dust on your screen?)

Other clichés abound, of course. There are far too many to discuss here. But you'll find some hints for lifting commonplace subjects out of the ordinary in many of my earlier articles. For example, take …

Autumn colors. See "Shooting Tips for the Autumn Woods."

Waterfalls? "The Lure of Falling Water" will help.

The Lure of Falling Water

And what about the moon? Well, you may find something to your advantage in "First Steps in the Forests of the Night."

Or your buddies in their boats? Read "Shoot the Action!" for some pointers.

I could go on and on, but I won't. Nearly everything I've written about photography for touches on ways to add your personal stamp to everyday photos. When all is said and done, however, every picture has a story to tell, even if that story is an old one. So let's lay the curse of the cliché to rest, now and forever.

A Day on the Water

It's not true that there's nothing new under the sun. But it's a rare photo that's truly original. In fact, most of the pictures that paddlers take are much of a muchness. Little distinguishes them from millions upon millions of photos that other paddlers have taken over the years. Which leaves us with this question: Are these photographic clichés worth the time and trouble?

I think they are. Moreover, I think the whole idea of the photographic cliché is somewhat … er … overexposed. Most of us take photos to please ourselves, after all — not to win plaudits from the critics. And it isn't hard to make even a familiar trope your own with a few tricks of the trade.

What do you think? Do you have a few good words for clichés? Let me know.

* You remember slides, don't you? They were also known as photographic transparencies — the common currency of "serious" film photography and a source of infinite boredom for anyone whose friends had just returned from a holiday trip to some exotic location.



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