Don’t Fear the Cliché

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The standard advice to photographers is this: Avoid clichés. Don’t shoot what’s been shot so much before, don’t tread on the well-worn ground, turn your eye from that colorful sunset, delete those pretty clouds. Run away from clichés, they say.

My advice is different. Don’t avoid that sunset—ponder it, feel it, photograph it. But don’t just snap a picture, consider what that sunset really means to you, search within your reaction to the scene for something that is new.

It is hard now to call much of anything from the earliest days of photography a cliché, even when the photograph’s subject matter, compositional structure, lightning, and print surface mimic that of a painting or etching. It’s a photograph, after all. Something unprecedented, an astonishing technology, a new way of representing the world on paper that was, and is, innately exciting.

By 1939, however, when Frederick Lewis Allen wrote (in Since Yesterday: The 1930s In America, 1929-1939) of the “fancy studies of young women in Greek draperies holding urns, their deliberately blurred views of sailboats with rippled reflections, and their sentimental depictions of cute babies” the clichés had deep roots, already.

Often, it is beauty itself that seems cliché.

Susan Sontag, in her book On Photography, ubiquitous in the curriculum at art schools, bemoans photography’s fixation on beauty and, as a result, the proscription of that same beauty for serious artistic purposes:

Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty. Except for those situations in which the camera is used to document, or to mark social rites, what moves people to take photographs is finding something beautiful…Nobody exclaims, “Isn’t that ugly! I must take a photograph of it.” Even if someone did say that, all it would mean is: “I find that ugly thing…beautiful.

….Photographs created the beautiful and–over generations of picture-taking–use it up. Certain glories of nature, for example, have been all but abandoned to the indefatigable attentions of amateur camera buffs. The image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs.” (Pg 85)

Makes you want to throw away your camera, doesn’t it?

But it’s nonsense. Sontag wasn’t a photographer and, for all I can tell, didn’t particularly like photography and in On Photography she demonstrated no feeling at all for the power of photography. Her snobbery is at the heart at why beauty–and cliché subjects–are so quickly dismissed by “serious people,” both viewers of photography and photographers themselves. They don’t want to risk seeming unsophisticated. They don’t want to be, in a word, uncool, so they wall themselves off emotionally from some of the most powerful possibilities the medium offers.

Here’s that same snobbery at work in John Cooper Powys’ oft-quoted (and oft-misquoted) Meaning of Culture, from 1930:

The difference between cultured people and uncultured people, in regard to their response to Nature, is that
the former make a lot of a little, whereas the latter make little of a lot. By this I mean that the less
cultured you are the more you require from Nature before you can be roused to reciprocity. Uncultured
people require blazing sunsets, awe-inspiring mountains, astonishing waterfalls, masses of gorgeous
flowers, portentous signs in the heavens, exceptional weather on earth, before their sensibility is stirred to a
response. Cultured people are thrilled through and through by the shadow of a few waving grass-blades
upon a little flat stone, or by a single dock-leaf growing under the railings of some city square.

Sniff, sniff! The common man is so common, so vulgar in his taste! Well.

But for Powys, the very words quoted above lead immediately to his argument that to appreciate nature (People ought to cultivate sensuality where scenery is concerned. One ought to touch it, to taste it, to embrace it, to eat it, to drink it, to make love to it.) you need to get out of the city–albeit, shielded from the common man and away from popular designations (…to a cultured mind no scenery is ordinary, and such a mind will always prefer solitude in an unassuming landscape to crowds of people at some
famous ‘inspirational’ resort

If you’ve ever been to Yosemite Valley during summer or to Yellowstone’s geyser basins you know the spirit-crushing crowds that he is talking about. But he is certainly correct that you need to engage with nature in some way, not just hide out in the city. In the same manner, you need to engage with the sunset, engage with those clouds.

You might think that clouds offer a limited creative range for the photographer but take a peek at the history of painting for a hint at the surprising possibilities—and hints that the subject is nowhere near exhaustion.

Below is a John Constable painting—a realistic depiction. Now turn to Turner, out of whose supernatural clouds and radiant suns so much intensity flows, and then on to Van Gogh, swirling his clouds into one of the most famous artworks on canvas.

The history of photography is also full of images of clouds, whether it is the clouds of Le Gray added to images in the darkroom (either to spruce up a cloudless image or to compensate for blue-only sensitive films which had difficulty registering clouds and open shadow at the same time), the more than two hundred emotionally resonant pictures of clouds above Lake George by Alfred Stieglitz in the 1920s and 1930s, or Ansel Adams’ majestic billows floating above Yosemite Valley in those idyllic days before the tourists multiplied one hundred-fold.

William Eggleston photographed clouds, too, a whole book full of them, puffy clouds, regular ol’ anyday clouds, all shot in the space of an hour or two, as far as I can judge. He pointed the camera straight up at the top of the sky, laying on the grass somewhere between Georgia and Tennessee (perhaps), risking stains to the elbows of his seersucker jacket (perhaps). The results seem a little random–bits of blue sky and fragments of clouds.

The images look like, well, nothing much at all but Eggleston would have you believe there is some deep connection, the shape of the clouds in some way resembling the design of the Confederate flag, some deeper meaning signified. You can debate Eggleston’s merits as a photographer but there is no doubt about his ability to say the most click-baity things about his images.

Jump ahead in time to Mitch Dobrowner’s cityscapes of Los Angeles. There are many storm-chasing photographers out there, and work was once novel a few years ago is by now indistinguishable, but Dobrowner excels at exploring the topic more fully, taking as his subject not the storm itself but the clouds, producing a body of cloud-work with storms, yes, but also extensive work with not a rain drop or tornado in evidence.

Szarkowski talked about this in relation to Ansel Adams, saying that Adams’ landscape images were

…always something defined by the transient quality of the light, by the weather… Ansel’s technique was designed to solve the very difficult problem that his sensibility required. If you’re going to photograph the mountain as weather, as opposed to geology, you’ve got to have a better technique. In Ansel’s best photographs, you have the sense you could identify the temperature, the relative humidity, the hour of the day, the day of the month, because that’s what they’re about. He’s not doing this for nothing, he’s not doing this to show off, that’s the nature of his subject matter,….[which] requires that he be able to describe the quality of the air. []

Dobrowner is perfectly aware of Szarkowski’s thoughts and Adam’s work, as his images make clear.

Let’s look at cloud images from my own work, sticking with this cliché topic and running straight toward it, to see what surprises may still lay within. Look carefully at each image, spend some time with them, before reading on.

Now that you’ve seen and visually digested the images you might be interested in a few background details of the project.

First, those dark, water-heavy clouds drifting through each frame really aren’t dark, water-heavy clouds. Those are white clouds—all of the images are inverted, fluffy, benign clouds turned to moody, brooding clouds, light skies transformed to ominous overcast. In one of the images (the fifth one), so very small, you can spot a tone-inverted passenger jet, which gives away my secret even without these words.

A plane! (Detail of fifth image, above)

Another detail is the scope of the image. Often photographers will use longer lenses (like Eggleston!) to capture their cloud details but for these images I utilize a very wide field, usually shooting a grid of images, stitching the photographs together later, the angle of view often encompassing nearly the entire sky from my shooting position.

That last photo in the set is an imposter. Sorry about that. If my cloud photos show miles of sky then the last photo—from my project Stieglitz Nebulae—shows an incomprehensibly vast distance from edge to edge. It is a photograph from an orbiting space telescope with all of the stars photoshopped out leaving behind the clouds of interstellar dust, strangely hard to distinguish from my Clouds project imagery.

I include the imposter here to make this point, the same that Stieglitz made when speaking about his cloud images (upon which I based my nebulae project): There is something about a photograph—I call it the “power of photography”—that is separate from subject matter. Something primal, something that goes around the layer of language in the brain and can reach a viewer emotionally, and powerfully so.

Some people get caught up in that language layer. For some people that is all there is, the photograph the servant of the word, the illustration of the theory. But for the rest of us it is the picture’s subject that is the servant of the feeling of the photograph, and it is that feeling, that power, that is the real subject.

Cliché subjects are nothing to avoid, nothing to be ashamed of shooting. They can offer the possibility of a more direct connection to the power of photography. It is that very power that they radiate, after all, which makes them so commonly photographed, it is that deep-brain connection, a connection outside of language, that makes them so popular the world over. We all feel that power although we sometimes deny it.

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