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No More Swans! An A-Z of photography cliches thumb

No More Swans! An A-Z of photography cliches

Swans, Near Chewton Mendip, Somerset, 2014
Jesse Alexander: Swans, Near Chewton Mendip, Somerset, 2014

Before I begin, I appreciate that this post may well get some readers a little agitated so I want to make it quite clear that it is borne out of genuine curiosity rather than (complete) arrogance.
I haven’t been an OCA Photography assessor for as long as some of my colleagues,  but over the past few years I have been compiling an A – Z of the most repeatedly seen subjects, techniques, and general things that somehow crop up time and again. Sometimes received with amusement and at others, with a sense, I must admit, of monotonous regularity. But why do so many of us (and I mean ‘us’) visualise the same things in response to words, phrases, or indeed, a photographic brief? And why are photographers drawn to particular things, like blistered, rusty metal or crumbling architecture – which I’ve shot my fair share of. It is worth noting that plenty of the subjects in this list can be seen in critically received contemporary photography – Jim Naughten’s Re-enactors, for instance; Sally Mann’s daughters; and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s long shadows that loomed ominously across his later photographs. 

I hope this will be read in the lighthearted faith in which it was written – but what do you think is missing from the list? Why do these cliches exist? And what should we be photographing instead?
Abandoned (derelict things) Aesthetic (mis- or over-use of the term)
Big Ben, Bees (sadly, because bees are cool), Bluebells, Big Issue sellers
Crayons, Country fayres, Chess sets, Cuddly toys
Ducks, Daffodils, Dogs, Daughters
Eggs (artfully arranged into an implied triangle, for instance)
Figurines (tAoP 4th assignment), Flowers, Fireworks, Food in general
Geese (migratory)
HDR (enough said I hope)
Infra red (employed for no reason other than it looks ‘trippy’)
Jelly (because it’s liquid and solid)
Kids (in general) 
Lemons, Light trails (long exposures)
Motorcross, MacroM&Ms, Marathons
Nineteen Fourties events
Pencils, Pineapples (tAoP assignment 4 in particular), colour popping
Quaints things in general
Red Arrows, Re-ennactors, Red cabbage
Swans, Shells, Shadows
Trains (especially at 1940’s events), Tomatos, Trophies, Tulips
Ugly statues (tAoP assignment 4 cont.)
Vagrants, Vignetting
Xmas markets (especially German style ones)
Yokelism (the benign depiction of rural people as cheerie, happy-go-lucky type – Morris dancers etc.)
Zoos (that is a genuine cliche – not just a cop-out), Zoom lenses (over-reliance upon, rather than getting closer to the subject [or further away])

Posted by author: Jesse
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48 thoughts on “No More Swans! An A-Z of photography cliches

  • Can anyone beat me—I did ten of the above for TAoP—including coursework; and contemplated, or shot and excluded another eight. Surprised markets in general did not make the list.
    And now this morning, I might rethink one of my ideas for C&N assignment 1—yup, had been entertaining the idea of doing zoos.
    Have added a link to Parr’s comments on clichés as well.

  • haha, I’ve seen a similar list by Martin Parr here http://www.martinparr.com/2011/photographic-cliches/ so as swieninkhavard suggests what is left and I can relate to that. At what point does an influence become a copy or an approach trip over into cliche?
    Take colour popping as an example. Is it always seen negatively? If so why? Surely, if the photographer has a good reason for using the approach then that is okay? Here is my colour popping cliche then…. https://anomiepete.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/a-photo-a-day-greg-and-the-sunday-paper/

    • Cross-posted with you Pete! Regarding the Parr, there’s been this little niggle happening in the back of my head for a while—about whether I could investigate the idea of cliché by creating/re-creating those those that Parr mentions—without the end images being clichés—but it’s too fuzzy in my head my head moment.

    • My problem with colour popping is that it’s nearly always done because it can be, often to make a photo that’s intrinsically not very interesting a bit more entertaining.
      If it makes a contribution to making an image potentially more meaningful then fine.

  • This is a very British based list of subjects leaving me guilty of barely any aside from shadows and light trails (of which ‘Light Trails’, I’m pretty sure, is a requirement in the Light project). Many of the others I would struggle to find in Asia. So following that to it’s natural conclusion, would they all still be cliches if I did manage to find them? I guess if I photographed them then yes (as an British expat culturally I would be culpable), but would the same be true of a non-Anglo oriented photographer?

  • On a more serious note, I think that, especially at the beginning when we have had little exposure to the concept of art photography, we tend to photograph what we think we should photograph—that which is aesthetically pleasing, and content that we think others—Joe Public—will find to be of interest.
    At the moment, I am reading with interest the following book— Bourdieu, P. et al. (1990) Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. Cambridge: Polity Press.; and looking at the work of ‘collectors’ [for want of a better word]—many using social media photo-sharing sites as their sources—like Kessels, Joachim Schmid—as mentioned in the Context & Narrative handbook, Thomas Dworzak and his Instagram books, also Corinne Vionnet’s “Photo Opportunities” where she merges together tourists’ snapshots; and Penelope Umbrico’s ongoing project which started at “2,303,057 Suns from Flickr (Partial) 9/25/07” and which had grown to “8,730,221 Suns from Flickr (Partial) 02/20/11” at its last installation. Granted, the photographers whose images have been taken from these photo-sharing sites are not, in the main, students studying art photography—but it does give an indication that we all photograph the same thing in the same manner—until we learn otherwise.

    • I hadn’t thought of it that way Clive.
      Insightful as ever 😉
      (Actually I cropped into to it [could only afford one lens] so the original is even more ‘distanced’. They kept moving further away from me. These rural swans aren’t so tame, you see…)

  • My problem with colour popping is when it’s used to decorate a photo that’s not inherently particularly interesting in an effort to give it more eye appeal. That also applies to overt effects such as faux HDR which can mask an image’s photographicity and make it look like a cheaply printed illustration on a 1950s jigsaw box.
    If effects are used to try and enhance meaning then fine.

  • surely it is not what you photograph but the way you photograph it … OK this is also a cliche.
    We have orchids in our garden so I usually photograph them every year but never submitted the photos to the OCA; it is more an exploration of the Orchids rather than a photographic journey.

  • Sunsets, sunflowers, captive animal head-shots, wrinkly old people, women’s naked bums (rarely see a bum with cellulite though), naked women in posh or dilapidated settings, non-white children.. In my camera club days I was very happy to go off and find every possible cliche, and they served me well as training for how get the shot I had visualised but eventually you recognise a lack of individuality or creativity, or you tutor mocks your biscuit tin shots. I was clearing out old cuttings yesterday, including five years of Amateur Photographer Photographer of the Year results, and those could serve as a definitive guide to the cliche, with only a few exceptions (including one of mine that won a round, I’m proud to say). But within this discursive space the use of cliche is not only valid but desirable, and serves a useful purpose, i.e. education for amateurs.
    Your choice of “weddings” is interesting though. I hadn’t thought that a wedding photo would be a cliche, but if it was presented to be viewed as a photograph rather than as a paid for record of the event then yes, I suppose cliche, although isn’t that what all but the most enlightened brides and their families actually want?

    • I appreciate there are some inconsistencies in my list: there are subject matters and techniques, and ‘ideas’ for assignments or responses to briefs – ‘Weddings’ are one of these. They have their benefits, in that they are technically challenging and can be stressful (if you aren’t stressed a bit then you’re probably not doing it properly!) (We’ve discussed this before on WeAreOCA http://weareoca.com/photography/wedding-photography/ )
      In my experience, it seems that they are often chosen as opportunities to do a couple of course Exercises or Assignments because the student is i) going as a guest or ii) is going to be paid to shoot it. And both of these factors present creative compromises, which is why it’s not a good idea.
      But I’m not sure I agree with you – why is a cliche desirable from an educational point of view? Even for a purely technical exercise something more useful can be gleaned from something original? Unless your instructing what NOT to photograph? Isn’t regurgitation going to just lead to yet more mush??!!

      • ‘In my experience, it seems that they are often chosen as opportunities to do a couple of course Exercises or Assignments because the student is i) going as a guest or ii) is going to be paid to shoot it. And both of these factors present creative compromises, which is why it’s not a good idea.’
        This happens in general too; attending some event or going on a journey appears to be the perfect opportunity to combine it with an assignment. Very often it’s not and the compromise in trying to wear two hats usually is evident in the final results.

        • I reckon one of the biggest benefits of Jesse’s list is that it alerts us to the danger of falling into cliche. Jesse includes ‘Vagrants’ in his list, but he has previously drawn our attention to excellent student work featuring homeless people as has Clive. The list says, if you are going for one of these subjects be aware.
          I have been working on a personal project called People Working at Weddings since 2008 – the problem is I don’t get invited to many social occasions

  • I’ll still go to my local camera club and it seems the current trend, certainly at national level, is for sub Dali -esque, heavily photoshopped, surreal portraits or old Asian people in very smoky settings.

  • From Switzerland I would like to offer Cows (with bells), Wheels of Cheese, and Snowtopped Mountains mirrored in a lake (any lake in all four seasons) from my own extensive cliché collection….

    • I’ve done all of those, Mirjam!
      But iChappers earlier comment about the Britishness of this list is interesting. And it’s worth reiterating that this list was compiled from student submissions who are mostly based in the UK. However (perhaps 1940s events and Big Ben aside) I think most of these aren’t really cultural cliches – but ‘photographic’ cliches, and (speaking anecdotally of course) plenty of overseas students (native and ex-pats) generate similar imagery.

  • Thanks for the MP list – I’d forgotten about that.
    Another interesting piece is an essay by Richard West ‘Teenage Girls at the Edges of Cities at Night’ in Source no. 52, Autumn 2007, pp.32-33.
    To be honest Anomiepete – your popping is technically well executed (and a worthwhile exercise) but I think you could have achieved the same result with something subtler and a lot straighter. Sorry :-/
    It was used very effectively in Schindler’s List, which I think is the most moving use of it I’ve ever seen, but I think the sequence would still be pretty harrowing without it…

  • A few little follow ups:
    Where would we be as developing artists without cliches, we need to fully explore even the most over-used themes and rely on the critical feedback from our peers to understand how to progress. Although I’m pleased to see abandoned shopping trollies did not make the list as I’m quite partial to them.
    The colour popping or selective colour desaturation I personally find annoying, yet it does have its place and can be effective in certain situations. For my sins when I worked at Jessops as a ‘Lab Monkey’ when I was an undergraduate student, I saw lots of photos that employed this post production technique. As a nickname a few of us called them ‘Schindler’s’…
    In TAoP I always wondered what weird and wonderful dust collecting statute would be next, they never disappointed me. Not forgetting going in very close for texture when it is about the control of the light not going to full macro mode…!
    I posted this link on the Flickr page, so there may be some cross readers. Yet it is quite poignant in terms of photographing the same objects we consider unique and in our own visual environment.
    Right I may try and photograph some swans next week.

  • Many of the photographs we make during our development are “sketches” that help us to learn fundamental visual and photographic concepts like contrast (white swans against a dark background) or the effects of light and colour (sunsets) or colour and form (flowers) or line and shape (pencils and buildings) etc. They tend to be about visual practice and mastery. So does emulating other photographers.
    It is important to be aware of this learning stage. It doesn’t last. At some point you find yourself on the “launch pad” and you go off on your own.

  • Its a bit like room 101 isn’t it! I offer characterful portraits of any type, and anything involving partially clothed girls pouting.
    (Possibly that’s just me though!)

  • Having spent last night at Bath Christmas market I had Jesse’s list in my mind and worked harder to find some more indirect and less obvious images. Most difficult thing was avoiding other people taking pictures.

  • Is it only a cliché if you’re unaware you’re falling into the cliché? If (like the Martin Parr comment) you worked the list as a commentary on cliché surely it would become something more? You mention Morris Dancers, but then what of TRJ? And even Charles Freger’s set of pagan costumes?
    Going a slightly different way, there’s the likes of Koons doing kitsch because it is kitsch. Can this be done of cliché?
    (and yeah, I know it’s a light hearted list, but… Clive loves his assignment 4 photographs of flowers and pineapples)

    • Oh I’m not that down on pineapples, statuettes yes! Especially 3″ high chrome ones, ha!
      I’m all the way with Russell on this too, ‘Not forgetting going in very close for texture when it is about the control of the light not going to full macro mode…!’
      Also really we’re talking cliche in the sense that they’re common tropes at assessment. As has been pointed out it’s not just the subject matter, as Jesse’s swans show, it’s also about a way of seeing combined with the ostensible subject. That could be interesting when combining the main subject with other elements or it could be a generic repetitious ‘me too’ way of seeing.
      Jesse’s posting is a bit of light hearted fun but it’s also usefully spreading awareness amongst those who read it who are going for assessment and perhaps challenging them.

  • I went to see the Constable – Making of a Master exhibition yesterday (highly recommended by the way). In his review in The Telegraph Mark Hudson writes “critics have come to see Constable as the epitome of dentists’ waiting room art: stolid, cliched….” What the exhibition shows is how Constable developed by studying (and laboriously copying) the work of painters such as Claude, Ruisdael, etc. in this way he learnt his technique and eventually developed his own style.
    Could it not be argued that new photography students are doing the same when they produce their cliche pictures (e.g. how to photograph a shiny figurine without unwanted reflections, how to photograph a pineapple in a way that really shows its form or texture)? Do we all need to go through the process of learning technique in order to develop our style? Should we be producing original images with excellent technique from the start?
    I simply ask this as a question and not as justification for having submitted images of pineapples, shiny figurines, swans, macro images and a few others for my TAoP module!!!
    By the way is it the subject (or object) that is the cliche or the way in which the image is rendered?

    • I also saw this exhibition! Constable has been marred by his success perhaps!? After all, he painted before chocolate boxes and dentist’s waiting rooms, it is the adoption of his work and it’s overuse that has made him seem cliched. I find his work romantic.
      Perhaps the most impressive work from this exhibition, at least for me, was that of an oak tree which was one of the last paintings to be shown. The way Constable had rendered it as almost life like was what made the picture worth looking at. Lucien Freud had fallen in love with this painting and done his own while the painting itself was based on Trees in Vigna Madama by Claude Lorrain (c.1638) which was copied by Frederick Christian Lewis c.1837
      Cliched perhaps but I go on photographing oak trees because each photograph is different and I am trying to discover what an oak tree is!!

  • the whole debate is a cliche. It’s also a fact of life. Creativity and originality are all measured in degrees from down right plagiarism through to pure new thinking and expression. Do we really believe that creativity and originality are so freely available and achievable to every student or even professional. We’re trying our darned best to be creative, some work harder at it than others but it’s rare to find real creative talent in any field. But the search and debate goes on! Cliches are the pantomime villan, without them what would we boo at? and the world isn’t a stage it’s one big panto!

  • It’s quite hard to find original things to shoot these days. I think we should not so much censor what we shoot but perhaps reevaluate are approach to it. In this sense we should not question what we shoot but how and why we shoot it.

  • Comments by Broomberg & Chanarin, on their experience as jurors for the World Press Photo competition [2007]. Seems that list of over-photographed subjects is getting longer and longer. BTW—I really recommend the book referenced below as a means of accessing relevant writings and interviews on the subject of documentary. I’ve also read the Appropriation one by David Evans—and rate that one too.
    “Again and again similar images are repeated, with only the actors and settings changing.
    … Grieving mothers,
    … charred human remains,
    … sunsets,
    … women giving birth,
    … children playing with toy guns,
    … cock fights,
    … bull fights,
    … Havana street scenes,
    … reflections in puddles,
    … reflections in windows,
    … football posts in unlikely locations,
    … swaddled babies,
    … portraits taken through mosquito nets,
    … needles in junkies’ arms,
    … derelict toilets,
    … Palestinian boys throwing stones,
    … contorted Chinese gymnasts,
    … Karl Lagerfeld,
    … models preparing for fashion shows backstage,
    … painted faces,
    … bodies covered in mud,
    … monks smoking cigarettes,
    … pigeons silhouetted against the sky,
    … Indian Sardus,
    … children leaping into rivers,
    … pigs being slaughtered”
    Broomberg, A. & Chanarin, O. (2008) Unconcerned, but not Indifferent [online]. Available from: http://www.broombergchanarin.com/unconcerned-but-not-indifferent-text/ (Accessed 20 December 2011).
    Broomberg, A. & Chanarin, O. (2013) ‘‘Unconcerned But Not Indifferent’ [2008]’, in Julian Stallabrass (ed.) Documentary [Documents of Contemporary Art]. London: Whitechapel Gallery. [pp11, 98–103]

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