Embracing the Cliché
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a cliché is
“A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.”
Examples of usage include:
‘that old cliché ‘a woman's place is in the home’
‘the usual worn-out clichés about the English’
We can certainly apply this concept to visual arts as well, including photography. Anyone of us can certainly think of photographs that have been taken so many times that they have become clichés: most photos taken at sunset at Horseshoe Bend in Arizona look exactly like every other one, don't they?
This one below is a photo of mine, taken one night in Prague, and it shows the Vitava river with the perspective of bridges crossing it just as the sky was becoming darker and the city lights started to turn on. The so-called blue hour, my favorite time of day for shooting cityscapes.
It's a well-worn location, as the screenshot below of a Google Images search results page demonstrates. If you want to take the same photo, jump on one of the trams that go to Sparta, get off right in front of the stadium and cross the park, called Letna Park, on the opposite side of the road from the stadium. It's pretty easy. Bring a telephoto lens because you'll be far from the bridges.
Sometimes, when I visit places for the first time and I have little time, I make a plan to capture at least a few iconic, postcard-type photos, if you will. In this case I only had two days to spend in Prague, the weather was horrible for the most part, so I tried at least to get a couple safe shots.
Now, there's a reason why some images become clichés and that's because they are beautiful. People love looking at them and love buying products that carry reproductions of those images, like for example jigsaw puzzles. The jigsaw puzzle industry might be the biggest consumer of colorful, detailed images of easily recognizable locations in great light, just like mine above.
Precisely because of these qualities, and not because of any great artistic merit, my photo has sold well, including to a jigsaw puzzle company that used it for one of their products. The proceedings from sales of this image might one day allow me to take another trip to Prague and other types of images at leisure.
Here's another, maybe less obvious example. The photo below is of a natural arch called the Azure Window, on the island of Gozo, in the Maltese archipelago. This was already very well-known as a photo location in the Mediterranean, but became even more popular after it was used as the backdrop for the scene of the wedding of Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo in the Game of Thrones series. (Warning: graphical violence at the link).
This is maybe less of a cliché, thanks to the long exposure and the black-and-white treatment, but still it is not overly original. However, I am happy that I took this photo. I won't be able to take it anymore, since the Azure Window is gone, collapsed into the sea after a winter storm.
My point here is that sometimes a cliché photo might be the only lasting memory you have of a place, so why not take it?
With this I don't want to suggest that you should only take iconic postcard shots. By all means, work towards developing your own style and finding your own vision, but there is nothing wrong with taking an occasional picture of too common a view and always remember, as director Jim Jarmusch says, that authenticity is invaluable, originality is non-existent.
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”
– Jim Jarmusch