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When is a Cliché not a Cliché

Familiar Themes as the Grammar of Photography

Tim Parkin

Tim Parkin

Amateur Photographer who plays with big cameras and film when in between digital photographs.

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This article isn't composed of my own solid definition. As a photographer I'm trying to come to my own conclusions about how photography works and what tools we have to play with. I'd be very interested in your own thoughts on this. 

In the last article, I talked about how the cliché is not in the subject itself but the approach that a photographer takes in photographing that subject and that true artists can use clichés as positive components in the development of their original works of art.

Now I’m bending my own definition of clichés here because the original definition was

“Repeated so frequently and indiscriminately so as to have lost its freshness and interest.”

I would propose that rather than the result being either a cliché or not, it would sit somewhere on a continuum from original to the full on “lack of freshness” clichéhood. Somewhere along this continuum we pass through an area that can be quite useful - that is the point where the subject or approach is so familiar as to evoke a consistent and predictable response but not lost its meaning.

As we said previously, clichés are clichés because they work and they work because they either provoke a reaction, work compositionally to help (or hinder) the journey through a picture or evoke an emotion. Why do they do this though?

We grow up around images from an early age and for every image or aspect of an image we see we build up a library of emotional and visual connections. Each person will have their own set of connections but there is enough commonality in the portrayal of images in books, tv, magazines and the internet that there are many universal layers of meaning we share with others (a lot of this is cultural so would be different for a Chinese photographer perhaps).

Let’s think about a few simple examples of this. When we take a photograph of a mature lone tree it denotes a few different emotions, loneliness, old age, pride. Different people will have different levels of each related emotion. These emotions are connected with the tree image partly because we have a tendency to anthropomorphise the world around us and partly because it is reinforced through reuse in this context. A path leading into the distance can relate to a journey or, with the right related items (a lone tree or a crow) old age or the unknown.

More subtle examples are fairly rare, but on talking with Joe Cornish about this article he pointed out the elements of texture and light are also communicators. Texture ranging from smoothness, evoking welcoming and comforting, to brittle, evoking discomfort, shrillness and disquiet. Light can range from harsh to smooth as well but the quality of light can introduce other emotions. Finally the colour rendition of a subject also introduces its own connotations, warm/cool are fairly obvious but toning can make images look uncomfortable (green) or downright odd (purple). Cinematographers have used toning like this for a long time (see here - although it can be overdone - so perhaps teal and orange have reached full clichéhood!).

The analysis of these sorts of relationships is a field called “semiotics”. This deals in the encoding and decoding of ‘signs’ in writing, cinema, etc. David Ward has written about this field extensiveley (I suggest reading David Ward’s excellent article “On Meaning in Photography” ) and it’s worth understanding a few terms that may be used when discussing semiotics

  • Signifier and signified - In the above example, the tree is the signifier and the loneliness is the signified
  • Denotation and Connotation - Denotation is the actual meaning of something (the tree is just that, a tree). Connotation is the implied or signified meaning - loneliness, pride, etc.

So you see that the subject of our picture should be able to communicate far more than just what it is. It can communicate what else it is, the metaphorical, the equivalent.

In landscape photography this is particularly hard to achieve because we typically have little control over the subject in front of us and many of the connotations are subtle but as photographers we should try to get used to reading the image in front of us in terms of the way they communicate beyond the literal and in so doing we can become more familiar with the message our photographs will carry.

The Problem With Single Photographs

The problem is that the single image has great difficulty in communicating complex ideas and messages.

This is where the power of the series or project comes from. Instead of trying to communicate a complex set of relations in a single picture, we can use the commonality or differences between multiple pictures to communicate something more complex. Each image takes on the role of a single words or emotions and then the series of images can become a more complex narrative.

Even if you aren’t working within a project, your stream of photographs, rather than each of your individual photographs, communicates more than just your interest in the subject matter. Even it is only subconsciously, your choice of composition, style, light and subject will portray something about you beyond any arbitrary collection of photographs.

In many ways this is your style, for even if you are working within the constraints of a project there are too many choices to make consciously and those subconscious choices you bring to the project will be consistently ‘you’. The emotions and ideas suggested by your images may be in the large part to do with your project but the underlying feel will echo your own style.

This is perhaps why we should always trust our own feelings because only in this way can our portrayal of our subject provide a consistent emotional feel that suggests 'us'.

Analysing Images

You can learn more about images by analysing them beyond the literal. Take your favourite photographs and instead of describing what is in them, i.e. nouns, try describing them in adjectives. These don’t have to be strong connotations, it’s a good practise to think about this as a brainstorming session rather than a fiercely intellectual challenge.

I am by no means suggest that this is the way we should all work and I definitely don't suggest that this is the way you should think when taking pictures. However, becoming aware of how your own photographs communicate can't help but give you more tools to play with as a photographer.

I'd really like some feedback on what people think about they way that landscape photography can communicate ideas and emotions beyond the literal and please feel free to suggest photographs that are notable in this respect. 

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