Saturday, September 23, 2006

Avoiding the Cliched Photograph

Learning to avoid the overused cliche when you're taking photos is one of the most important artistic steps you will ever learn.

Now, when I say the words "cliched photograph," I'm not talking about snapshots at the family reunion or pictures of the kids opening their Christmas presents. While it's nice if you can incorporate some artistic ideas and techniques into these types of candid shots and make them a little more interesting, really, the main point of those photos is to record the moment and save it for posterity. And thus in those cases I think it's perfectly fine to take a picture of Grandma smiling from the picnic table or to line the kids up in front of the tree. No harm done. Chances are that when you look back on those photos you'll be focusing on someone's smile or how much they've grown- not on whether or not you used a unique camera angle.

What I am talking about when I talk about cliches exists in the rapidly expanding field of artistic photography. With the onset of digital photos, it seems that everyone is becoming involved in taking artistic photos. And that's fantastic. What isn't so fantastic is the fact that many of those photos are not art. And the standards for such things are becoming ridiculously low.

So what does it take, you might ask? Contrary to what many people might believe, creating artistic photos doesn't take (at least, not necessarily) years of training or specialized education. Although those things can help, they're not requirements for someone who is willing to put plenty of time and practice into the pastime of teaching themselves how to shoot effective photos. What is required- and this is the one absolute must, in my opinion- is a distinct and definite distate for the cliched shot.

I think the reason this is on my mind at the moment is because I recently joined the staff of an art magazine. After going through the magazine that was produced by this group last year, I'm a little surprised at the lack of quality in some of the artwork. We're planning a major shake-up in the submission rules this year, and if I have any say in it cliched photos will be the first things to go.

So what am I referring to when I say a cliched photo? Well, it's something that "works" on a very clean level; everything in the photo looks like it is where it's supposed to be, and maybe when you look at it you get the impression of a calendar or a postcard shot. But one important thing is missing: the emotion, the element of surprise. The artistic eye.

Let's take an example. Let's say two different photographers are each given a camera and the same subject to work with. The subject might be a rock-strewn beach on a windy day, with waves crashing in the distance. OK. A shot like this can sometimes be tricky because there is no real "focal point"- no people, no trees, just water hitting the beach. One of the two photographers might stand head-on and take a photo of a wave just as it breaks. It may be a beautiful shot, with the blue of the water contrasting against the white breakers and the rocks gleaming in the sun. But the photo feels too "pat." Everything is where it should be. You can imagine standing on that beach. In the photo, it looks just like ten thousand other beaches. You don't get a sense of emotion; what you get is "ooh, isn't that pretty." You get a calm sense of postcard beauty when you see it. This type of photographer might do fine in the world of calendar and commercial photography; but art it is not.

Now let's go to our second photographer. This one, the anti-cliche artist, decides to get down on one knee. He holds his camera at a 45-degree angle to the water, and shoots a skewed picture that is part water, part sky, with the tip of a breaker just visible in one corner. This picture? It doesn't give you the impression of standing on the beach, not unless you're planning on standing on your head. It may not make you say "ooh, how pretty," so much as it makes you say, "what is that?" But it does show you the beach- instantly recognizable after a moment's study- and it hits you in a unique part of your chest, making you say "Oh! I see what he did here!" It gives you a whole new perspective on that beach that you might have stared at ten thousand times. And that, right there, is what I consider art in photography.

Be aware of the fact that some "anti-cliche" shots have been used so often as to become cliches themselves. I'm thinking now of the silhouettes of people's backs as they stand looking at something, like a waterfall or canyon; the shots of a girl drinking coffee in front of a cafe; close-ups of hands caressing each other, of feet resting on the floor. These shots have been overdone- maybe not by everyone, but by enough would-be photographers to make them just as common and unsurprising as any vacation snapshot. Avoid those shots, too, like the plague. You can do better.

So, the next time you have a camera in your hand and you want to create something beautiful, do something unexpected. Try shooting from the hip without using your viewfinder. Take an entirely new angle on a familiar scene. Keep in mind all of the cardinal rules about photography regarding light, framing etc... but don't keep them in mind TOO much. The key is not to imagine a postcard-perfect shot while you're taking the photo. Don't try to imagine anything at all; just shoot. Your camera is a pair of scissors and it's cutting a jagged image out of the world around you. Everyone else is cutting perfect circles. Go for the jagged trapezoid. That's how you'll really learn to create photos that move people... photos that fall into the realm of true art.
-by bjp

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