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Jordan McChesney's picture

What are cliches?

Greetings fellow users of the internet.

It's been a while since I've posted anything, as I've been rather busy.
Today I wanted to discuss something using some of my older images. The idea of "cliches"

I have, on occasion, heard other photographers refer to flowers as a "cliche" subject to shoot. I've always found this an interesting "critique" as just about everything is a "cliche" this day in age, when held under the same light. Birds, epic sunsets, women with blank expressions, and sports cars are all are subjects I see professionals photographing, all while brushing off flowers as "cliche", without any sense of irony. Don't get me wrong, it's not just flowers, I've also heard things like waterfalls, fireworks, and even specific locations like Kirkjufell being put under the blanket of "cliches"

So the question I'm interested in discussing is "what is a cliche, in the world of photography?". Can subjects be cliche? Can locations be cliche? How about entire genres?

Personally, I tend to avoid the word "cliche" as I tend to find using it as a criticism to be a little... well... cliche. It's what I've often referred to as "pseudo-criticism", wherein someone provides what appears to be criticism on a surface level, but actually fails to provide any meaningful information regarding the actual image or the quality. (For example, saying "I've seen so many pictures from this location, it's such a cliche" is basically like saying "I've seen so many people making this kind of pasta, so this pasta is a cliche" -- it doesn't actually reflect the quality of that picture... or pasta.) I always try my best to look at images with nuance, when providing feedback. I always keep in mind that just because I've seen some locations or subjects a ton of times, not everyone has. I understand that originality is one factor by which things can be judged, but it's not something that makes or breaks an image for me. Having an image similar to others may reduce it's market value, but it doesn't make it bad. The opposite is also true, something can be original, while being truly terrible.

I feel like the word "cliche" is overused. The way I see it, a subject can't be a cliche, nor can locations, even if they've been shot a million times. A subject is just something for the photographer to use to create their own original image. It's when that resulting image lacks any original thought or ideas that I would lean towards calling it "nothing groundbreaking", but I usually follow up with "but not everything has to be", and I still tend not to hold that against the image as I understand photographer work with what they are given.

Anyway, I'm curious to know what y'all think. How do you feel about using "cliche" as a criticism? Do you consider anything to be cliche?
Also, below, I've attached two images of what have been criticized as "cliche" because apparently daises are super common in some parts of the world. No consideration was given to the composition or editing. I was kind of going for a "fine art" style whatever that means, haha. Feel free to give feedback on these images, as well, haha.

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joseph cole's picture

a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.
"the old cliché “one man's meat is another man's poison.”"
synonyms: platitude, hackneyed phrase, commonplace, banality, truism, trite phrase, banal phrase, overworked phrase, stock phrase, bromide; More
a stereotype or electrotype.

By this definition all photography is cliche and I couldn’t care less because at the end of the day a brilliant image is one that inspires me to pick up my camera and try it for myself so screw “cliche” I’m going to continue to shoot whatever makes me happy

Ruth Carll's picture

Love that you dropped in the actual definition Joe. And two thumbs up for the sentiment.

Jordan McChesney's picture

I was considering posting the dictionary definition, but decided against it, because they tend to lack nuance, haha.
But it does highlight that everything is a cliche, it’s how we go about using those cliches to create our original work that counts.

joseph cole's picture

Lmfao was that too cliche hahaha

Ruth Carll's picture

Ok - I've syphoned down a huge coffee and my scientist "literal" brain has kicked in. Having never microscopically examined this particular word before, and after rereading the definition, it isn't the item that is cliche but the opinion or response. Huh. So, going back to my flower example, spritzing isn't cliche - my reaction to it is. Hmmmm.

THEN I looked up the definition and found the same as Joe included but there was a second bullet point "2. a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person."

Now we have "an unoriginal thing". This speaks to Jordan's point to Joe S. that our goal is to try and take common subjects in new ways.

So our opinions can be cliche or a subject can. I am leaning toward opinions .... In my opinion. :)

Chris Jablonski's picture

You reckless creature, Joseph!

Joe Scalise's picture

I would have to say it depends on how or what way the word is being used.

Specifically speaking to photography, I would have to say I might find the word as a lazy tool to make a critique with. We've all seen countless photos of countless subjects, and from time to time, many of us probably get a bit tired of seeing the 'same' type of shots or the 'same' subjects/ locations over and over, but personally I would not use the word cliche. I would just articulate what it is that makes me like or dislike and image, or add some constructive criticism, or if I am tired of looking at something for whatever reason, then I just won't say anything, ha ha. Again, I wouldn't use cliche, I have heard people use the word for a variety of subjects (not just photography) and I don't mean to sound insulting, but I consider their use as a "lazy tool for a lazy mind.'

From a personal hobby stand point or personal art stand point (something one does for their own enjoyment) I'd say it really doesn't fit because an individual should shoot what they feel is good or fulfilling to them. Hell, what hasn't been photographed these days. I feel the word cliche doesn't fit there. Currently, I approach photography as a hobby, no image to me is a cliche.

When I worked in commercial/ advertising 'subjects' and 'locations' could easily be considered cliche. The challenges were always to create something 'new' (yeah, right), or at the very least a new way to see what has been done before. Specifically speaking to photography, when I would review photographer portfolios in hopes to find a photographer that was a good 'fit' for the campaign we were creating, many of the portfolios were custom curated to show photos that would be visually appealing to our specific needs. However, most of the time, in our particular field of advertising the visuals (especially photography) unfortunately were just re-shoots of the same type of subjects and/or locations. The word cliche was the first to come to mind. So from a commercial stand point (and having the experience with it) I would say that subjects and locations can become cliche. When I was a full time art director (currently a happy freelancer), if I was face to face with a visual artist, I would only use the word cliche as a constructive talking point as to why we need to seek out a different 'look.' I felt, and still feel, if I was to use the word cliche as a 'criticism,' I might be criticizing their thought process as being lazy even before they show me their portfolio or went out to a shoot, but I wouldn't do it anyway, I always try to be constructive not insulting.

TL;DR ??

Ruth Carll's picture

Great input Joe!

Jordan McChesney's picture

I agree with this. Right now, Mads Peter Iversen is uploading pictures from the exact same location, and the difference in the conditions helps each one feel unique. I think finding new ways to use old locations is one of the great challenges we face.

joseph cole's picture

Between you and Jordan this is the most I’ve read in years I need to lay down my head hurts

Ruth Carll's picture

Using Joe's definition, first point, 'cliche' is cliche.

I've rarely used this adjective in feedback. But I have thought it. When I look at an image where I either 1) feel like I've seen it mmmaaannnyyy times already or 2) when it is a water droplet on a petal. Sorry, I can't let that one go. Not because it isn't beautiful sometimes. It is! And on those occasions I'll enjoy the art. But often because it is sprayed on making it obviously contrived and that hurts the image for me. Now, I know you will point out that it is all contrived because we are making the image. Lord knows I play around with things and you could never say my inks are somehow natural. I get the contradiction in my thinking. Perhaps it is a perception of a lack of creativity with whipping out a spray bottle and spritzing before taking the shot. I don't know. BUT
I would never tell someone their image was cliche. It isnt to them and that would be rude and unnecessary. Just like I would never just say that I didn't like an image.
To what purpose would that serve?

That's just me though. Maybe more coffee would help.

For the photos, these are a common style - my style in fact - and these are beautiful. Even if they feel familiar! The second one is particularly pleasing!

Interesting topic. Welcome back!

Jordan McChesney's picture

I see what you’re saying. I wouldn’t call an entire photo a cliche, but there are definitely cliche aspects that can make up an image, and when used poorly, they detract from the image. The first thing that comes to mind is when people use programs to add flying flower pedals or snow to their image. It’s super popular here in japan, and many times when I see it I just think that without the added effect it would be nothing more than a snapshot.
One of the Fstoppers guys did something similar recently. They had a long exposure shot, but then added completely stationary birds in the air. A perfect example of when not to use that “cliche”, haha. Had it not been a long exposure, it would have been acceptable.

Elizabeth Yorick's picture

Growing up, my mother always told me that "swearing" was showing your ignorance of the English language. She pointed out there are thousands of words and while each word may have a definition, there are numerous words that are synonyms. Therefore, there was never a reason, in her opinion, to swear. Now, I can't say that I don't swear, but for me, a cliche, is the same thing as swearing was to my mother. That's not to say I haven't used the words, gorgeous, beautiful, a few times repeatedly when I think something is gorgeous and beautiful. I do try very hard to explain my thoughts when I'm leaving criticism. I know how much "constructive criticism" helps me to learn and grow.... even if I don't like what's being pointed out. Also, as has already been stated, not everybody has Daisy's growing in their backyard. As far as I'm concerned, images can't be "cliche's". Every image is slightly different, whether it's the focal distance, the focal point, the bokah, etc. So for those who claim something is cliche - I say YOU ARE THE CLICHE. You literally just became a "Cliche". IMHO :)

As far as the pics, both are great. Love the beautiful clean backgrounds that make the flowers pop right out. Haven't figured out how "Fine Art" is defined but I could see both hanging in an art gallery. I could even see the second as a greeting card or even an ad. Both are good!

Jordan McChesney's picture

That's a very interesting take, haha. I think criticism and praise both run the risk of being too generic. I'm guilty of giving generic praise, but I do try to point out a thing or two I like, or something that helped me connect to the image. However, with criticism, I always try to be detailed, and encouraging.

Thanks for the feedback, as well. I also don't really understand "fine art" but I feel like it was the best way to describe what I was going for, because they aren't just pictures of "look at these flowers", I was trying to express some kind of story or emotion using them.

Amos Roy's picture

Cliché is definitely a valid criticism. It is one easy word and everyone know what it means. A lazy tool for a lazy mind, maybe, or maybe an efficient way to say that there is nothing unusually appealing or special to me about this picture.

It is a little different than saying you just don't like it, but even just saying you don't like it would still serve a purpose if the artist is interested to know whether or you not you like it, which usually they are.

Of course criticizing those who use cliché as criticism is also valid criticism, and also cliché. Anyway, I also think that these pictures posted here are beautiful, but a they are a little cliché.

Jordan McChesney's picture

Well, I think "cliche" can be a valid criticism, but it needs to be more specific, since just about everything, when broken down, can be a "cliche". What needs to be taken into consideration is that "cliches" are tools, so it depends on how well those tools are used to craft the overall image. A cliche used well, is good, a cliche used poorly, is bad.

For example, using foreground elements in a landscape photo is a cliche. However, when used well, it improves an image. However, when used poorly, it can be distracting or detract from the overall quality. I see this a lot in photos of people just getting into photography, especially on Reddit. I'll see people including blurry rocks in their foreground because the felt they "need a foreground element". That being said, when I see an image using foreground elements, I don't just call it "cliche", rather I consider how well it was used in to enhance the overall image.

Regarding my images, I'm curious to know what is "cliche" about them. I know they are pictures of flowers and have a bit of a "moody" edit to them. However, I feel like that's only looking at them at a surface level, but perhaps that was my bad for not including any information.

Thanks for your thoughts!

Amos Roy's picture

well I think you nailed it. It is a "surface level" criticism. It's about the first impression.

One might see the picture and think "oh another picture of a bee and flower, no big deal." Then they will simply say "nice, but cliché" and move on. They are trying to say nothing grabbed my interest enough to want to view this any deeper than the surface level. If that makes sense.

You also should consider your audience. If you were in a flower specific photo contest being critiqued by people who care more about flower photos then "cliché" could mean something more specific than just a mass of anonymous people who just take landscapes and whatever else.

It is definitely a veiled statement either way, but I think you could gage at least that much, that nothing really pops out as special on the surface which could be good to know. Maybe if you're trying to sell a ton of prints for home décor that could be a good thing.

Oh, you're welcome for my thoughts. I don't really know anything btw, just trying to participate, learn, and have fun.

Jordan McChesney's picture

I think the point about the audience is a good one, especially for this discussion. I have to admit, based on my interests, whenever I see a portrait shot of a model, my immediate thought is “oh, another woman in a studio with soft light”, without considering much else. However, I know I’m not the audience for that image, so I don’t critique them. But my lack of interest in that style stops me from thinking any more deeply about them. I suppose this is the closest I get to thinking “same old thing” and brushing it off as just another picture of just another girl.

I also keep audience in mind, when it comes to posting photos here. You might notice in my portfolio, I don’t have any flower photos. This is because I know a large majority of the people here aren’t interested in them. My landscape, cityscape and abstract shots seem to perform better here. However, on the other side, my flower photos get way more attention on instagram than my abstract photos, but that may just come down to hashtags, haha.

As for these two, they fit more into my “fine art” attempts. They’re more the kind of thing I’d hang in a small cafe art show, with some pretentious caption, haha. Overall, I like taking pictures of flowers because I feel like too many people focus on the epic landscapes (myself included), that they forget to appreciate the smaller wonders. I also do them to stay active. The weather in late spring, and all of summer here is just awful, so sunshine is more or less non-existent, so they are a great way to stay active in the summer months. I also tend to get bored easily, so switching up my subjects really helps me stay interested, though it may hurt me in terms of “building an audience” haha

It’s good to hear thoughts from people all over the world, of different levels. Thanks!

Alan Brown's picture

I believe that a beautiful image remains beautiful no matter how many times it has been shot before.

There are few interesting subjects/places in the world that have not been photographed a thousand times. Just because others have gone before does not mean the result is bad, but an onus may lie with the photographer if they wish to make it stand out.

Any picture should be judged purely on its photographic merit in critiques, but admittedly those that have a unique or creative perspective will likely offer greater interest.

As for you pictures I really like the soft tones and isolation from the background.

Jordan McChesney's picture

It sounds like we're on the same page. I always try to look at and critique images in a nuanced way, even if they are from a location I've seen many times before.

A "cliché" in French actually means a picture. Litterally, it means a photograph. That's the main sense people know. But initially it meant a copy of an artwork. Same with "stéréotype" btw. It's only later that it started to mean something everyone does, losing its originality.

I don't care if the photographed location itself has been seen a million times, as long as it means something to you. It is also fine to do it as an exercise to progress in your skills. But I'm not a fan of photographers shooting a location "because it's what people want and it makes money". I know people have got to eat, but a few months ago, I was checking out Nick Page's portfolio, and he had great pictures of Oregon, his home state, and in the middle of all this, a bit out of place... Mesa Arch, the classic shot at sunrise. I asked him about it, and he said "yeah but those are the ones that sell, unfortunately". So I understand him, but personally it's not a picture I'd wanna buy. Half the value is the story to me. It doesn't mean either that you have to cook up a BS story for your pictures on instagram like many do... I've seen a guy reproducing the Peter Lik "ghost" picture at Antelope canyon, where it's insanely crowded, and local guides throw sand to help you do the shot. And this guy as a caption wrote this thing about being lost in the wilderness, suddenly struck by this vision and shit... That is even worse than a cliché.

Jordan McChesney's picture

Yeah, we have a tendency to take language, and twist it. Just look at what we've done with "literally".

Yeah, I try my best to avoid the "iconic shots" but when given the chance, I have to admit, I don't turn them down. I don't suffer from this problem too often, as there are few English speaking photographers here in Japan, so even if I go to a place like "The Chureito Pagoda", a lot of people I interact with will have never seen it before, despite it being the most photographed location in Japan. The Mesa arch was the same for me. I'd never heard of it before Thomas Heaton went there, because I'm unfamiliar with locations in The US.

As for people making up stories or lying about images, I think that's the worst way to drive up the value of an image. It won't affect my overall critique of the image, but it will affect how I think about their work.

Robert Tran's picture

Based on the dialogue thus far, there seems to be a textbook definition and a perceived definition. For me, the latter can be biased by skill level, familiarity with a photographer's work, knowledge of certain lighting / gear, etc.

The terminology in and of itself, really doesn't impact my own opinions any more than any other labels i.e. trite, overdone, boring. However, if someone feels that one of my photos is cliche and makes the effort to explain their rationale, I would certainly take the time consider their criticism(s).

Ultimately, when I shoot a subject, I have a voice inside that tells me whether I am truly enjoying the experience or if I am taking the shot because I know it will generate likes. If it is the latter, then chances are, I'll feel it's cliche without anyone else needing to tell me. Often, this is how I'll decide whether I want to include an image in my portfolio.

Jordan McChesney's picture

Yeah, I’m trying to lean away from the textbook definition, as it lacks nuance. Just because something lacks originality, it’s not inherently bad — pepperoni pizza for example, not new or unique, but still amazing despite that, and I feel art is the same. I feel like a lot of people use cliche in the latter way. They’ve seen something a lot, so it’s a “cliche” based on their personal experience, which ignores the fact that other people may not have seen it before. When judging a photo, I try to ignore that have seen the location or subject before, as “I’ve seen this before” isn’t really a critique of the image, so much as it’s a fact about my viewing experience.

When it comes to shooting, I definitely shoot for myself more than anyone, which is why I explore so many different styles. That being said, there are days where I understand I won’t be getting a portfolio grade image, so I just have fun taking instagram worthy shots. Sometimes the reduced pressure helps me enjoy it a little more.