Eye on Image-Making: Visual Clichés

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines a cliché as “a trite phrase or expression” or “a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation.” Although the definition is geared toward writing, it can just as easily be applied to image-making. Two recent events prompted me to think about visual clichés. First, I spent several hours searching through a stock agency database of photographs on the Web. Second, I helped judge a newspaper-photography contest.

I was looking through the stock agency database of photographs because I wanted a large collection of images to use in an exercise with my mass communication writing students. My goal was to help my students understand the thematic aspect of photographs and their communicative power.

I projected a photograph on the screen at the front of the room and asked my students to write down whatever words that particular image called to mind. We then went around the room and each student said the words he or she had written down. Eventually, these students will enter the fields of advertising or public relations, where they will be called upon to marry images with written text.

Thematic Photographs

In order to select the photographs for this exercise, I searched the stock agency database using these keywords: “danger,” “power,” “romance,” and “security.” I was looking for thematic rather than literal photographs. Students viewing a literal photograph, such as a rose and a heart-shaped box of chocolates, would probably all write down the same word, such as “love.” But students viewing a thematic photograph, such as a man grasping a frayed rope, might write down “fear,” “hope,” “danger,” or any number of similar concepts.

Some of the photographs I showed my students fit the dictionary definition of a cliché. In other words, they were images that relied on familiar and easily interpreted visual cues: a rock-climber dangling from an overhanging cliff (danger); an executive, arms folded, seated behind a large desk (power); a couple holding hands (romance); a penguin chick being sheltered by its parents (security).

Others were more ambiguous and provoked a wider variety of responses—are the two young, beautiful people embracing on the beach in love or in lust? Is the swimmer reaching for the life preserver about to drown or about to be saved? Does a gun indicate danger or protection?

Easy to Read, or More Nuanced?

It would be interesting to see sales figures for some of the photographs I showed my students. On the one hand, you would think that unambiguous, easily readable images would be the most successful. On the other hand, it would seem that a photograph’s chance of selling would increase in proportion to the number of themes or concepts an art director or editor could associate with that particular image—in other words, more ambiguous, more nuanced photographs should sell better than clichés.

Judging from my nonscientific sample of one stock agency’s database of images deemed “commercial,” there is a bewildering blend of clichéd photographs, quirky photo-illustrations, and well-crafted, thoughtful images.

In the ancient past, stock consisted primarily of editorial outtakes. Then, with the advent of agencies such as The Image Bank, stock photographers began to create photographs specifically for higher-end corporate and advertising use. Stock agencies began to produce lavish catalogs, distribute want lists to their photographers, and even help organize shooting sessions for favored contributors.

Industry consolidation reduced the number of viable agencies, and the Web created a vast database of images, many of which are available for little or no cost. If you are a stock photographer today, how do you decide what to shoot? Do you go with the flow and create images similar to the ones you see on stock agency Web sites? Or do you break from the pack and create cutting-edge imagery, knowing that it might not find the right audience?

Newspaper Contest

My next foray into the world of visual clichés came when I helped judge a newspaper-photography contest. My fellow judges were teachers of photography and graphic design. Our goal was to select first-, second-, and third-place winners from dozens of entries in various categories, including spot news, features, and sports.

Whatever our differences in the way we approached the judging, it soon became clear that we shared a common goal: to reward those photographers who demonstrated an ability to make meaningful, communicative photographs from situations that might otherwise have produced a trite or hackneyed images, to use Merriam-Webster’s words. In short, we wanted to avoid clichés like, well, the plague.

Inevitably, this meant we gave a collective thumbs-down to many dramatic, visually appealing photographs—images that might have done well in a more artistically oriented contest. In fact, some of these photographs—if they were available to license as stock images—might outsell the ones we named as winners.

Why? A photograph that is unambiguous and easy to read might be appropriate for one type of use, whereas a more nuanced photograph—or one that provides more useful information to its viewers—might just fit the bill for another type of use. As contest judges, we wanted to use our power (such as it was) to try to influence, in some small way, the types of photographs that get made for—and run in—daily newspapers. In the words of that old cliché, everybody loves a winner.

What’s Wrong with Clichés?

Now I want you to close your eyes and call up some images made by your favorite photographer. See any visual clichés? I’m partial to that long lineage of documentary photographers stretching back to the early days of 35mm candid photography and reaching forward to today’s multimedia photojournalists. Think Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Mary Ellen Mark, Lauren Greenfield—you get the idea.

These image-makers created—and are creating—a new visual language, as devoid of clichés as possible. That’s what makes their work original, lively, and stimulating to look at. As the literary critic C. L. R. James wrote about Melville’s Moby-Dick, great literature introduces us to characters unlike any the world has ever known. Similarly, great photographers introduce us to images unlike any the world has ever seen.

So what’s wrong with clichés? Let’s go back to Merriam-Webster’s definition, as applied to writing. A cliché represents lazy writing, the easy way out. A cliché is a crutch to lean on when originality fails and you lose the support of your imagination.

The same is true when it comes to image-making. Can’t think of an original way to solve a visual-communication problem? Retrieve a well-worn image from the standard repertoire: the businessperson leaping over a hurdle or dashing through the airport, mobile phone and laptop case in hand; the grieving family at a funeral, shot discreetly with a telephoto lens.

In some cases, these types of images fit the bill—unambiguous, easy to read. But in the long run, a steady diet of clichéd images may encourage image-makers to adopt a “good enough” mentality. Given the importance of visual images in today’s world, we can, and should, do better.

One Response to “Eye on Image-Making: Visual Clichés”

  1. The key phrase is image making versus image taking. There was a time when the world was starved for images that told news. Now the world, satiated with news media and much like an addict, has moved on to a more powerful hit, image making.

    See the works of Jerry Uelsmann or Scott Mutter and wonder as to why so many great artists had their starts and basis in the workplace of illustration.

    The digital darkroom is the new palette.

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