I hadn't realised how much I needed to stretch my legs after the weekend's two days of train travel. So I was delighted to find my local bluebell woods still in good flower and a beautiful sunny day dappling the path before me. Of course I didn't take a camera, photos of bluebells aren't something that excite me remotely. I don't photograph things for what they are, but for what they represent, that is the essence of being a conceptualist for me. But something was troubling me, so much so, that I've ’purloined’ this bench and began writing on my phone, which was all I had to hand. The question is: why are photographic clichés so popular and acceptable (I'm talking here about social media, but that seems as good a measure as any) when originality has such a minority appeal? Someone needs to explain it to me, because, frankly, I’m stumped.
I realise that complete originality is as rare as hen’s teeth, but there are elements of it to be found in most work produced by those who can think and practice individuality. They aren't so rare I would say. So why value replication, what has been done before, probably countless times over and above something fresh, insightful, personal and maybe original?
Equally it can be said that cliché is difficult to avoid. The first question I ask myself when I have a new idea for a series is ’have I seen this before?’. I want to be as sure as possible that it came from within and isn't from an external (even if forgotten) influence. Why? Because there's no point in me doing something that's been done before, it will in some minor way feel like it's not mine. All work will inevitably contain some elements of external influence; none of us work on Mars - at least yet! The point is that it is possible to see afresh even with those influences. Also as time passes our influences become, more and more, ourselves, we reference our previous work and experiences. It gets easier to avoid the impersonal of the cliché.
Originality is difficult to achieve, but surely not so much more difficult than that technically perfect representation of what everyone does, endlessly. It's maybe a question of approach - all that technique can be learned, in time, relatively easily, but equally, so can learning to think creatively be learned, with time. I guess it's something to do with the monstrous industry that is photography - cameras, lenses, popular magazines, etc - have no interest in originality because the truth may out - we don't need to spend the same as a small car every few years to achieve it. You can't monetize thinking and free expression. It might even be dangerous to contemplate.
Actually; I think that's too convenient and too forgiving. There's something more fundamental about photography that brings out the conformist in people. Maybe it's the technical side that appeals to some more than the inherent possibilities of meaning and expression? And they are two things that are better said through some form of individuality. Clichés are stripped bare of any meaning or individuality by their very definition. There is no ’why?’. Maybe that's what people are afraid of? That other people are different. Or are they more comfortable without that question, despite the huge pleasures to be had from its contemplation.
It’s not even that simple either. People actually celebrate this stuff, they gather around it like sheep (or should that be flies around the corpse of creativity?). Why is that even socially acceptable? We should be pitying the loss of mojo, of creativity and individuality. Cliché should be condemned more frequently and more thoroughly. I suppose people are frightened of criticising others or spoiling their innocent fun, or afraid of condemning what is popular. There's nothing wrong with a few clichés if you're developing (actually most new photographers are quite original - they haven't learnt to make clichés yet). Yet it is part of the learning process. Let’s fight the corner for something that is unquestionably better, that is a deeper and more satisfying experience for both those who look at, and make good photographic work.
Maybe I'm a photographic snob. I don't think of myself that way, I simply think of myself as someone who is fascinated by the possibilities of the photographic medium. I study and think about it endlessly - probably more than I practice it. That is a necessary prerequisite to practice for me. Thinking comes before action. Thinking doesn't preclude feeling, or responding to what's around us, but it does create a framework for our approach, something that says ’I made this’, not some photographic magazine or camera manufacturer.
You see I just don't get it. Maybe some people do prefer their TV dinners to something from a good restaurant? I'm not one of them. I think I’m concluding the problem lies in the absence of good critical writing about photography, especially in the popular, accessible realm. That's probably what I should have written about in my sunny bluebell wood.
|The first image in my forthcoming series 'On Angel's Wings' which is about photography as a form of musical notation.|