Avoiding Cliché the Art School Way

A photographer friend of mine says that art school drilled “no flower pictures” into her head as well as “no railroad track pictures.” I suppose that in the eyes of the professors, those two subjects had been shot to death, and there was no way that a student photographer could produce an image that was not a cliché.

One wonders about the reasons for these prohibitions. Did the instructors really believe that their students were incapable of creating non- clichéd images?  (And that raises the question of whether the teachers’ opinions of their students’ creative abilities were justified.) Or were they just tired of seeing images of these subjects? Or did they believe that those subjects were completely exhausted in terms of artistic potential?

One also wonders what other taboos such a school might establish. And aren’t we glad that Robert Mapplethorpe and numerous other artists never heard such admonitions? Admittedly, some areas of photography seem to be more filled with cliché than others, but is that any reason to forbid them entirely?

Extending this idea beyond avoiding railroad track and flower images, would we also prohibit nudes, and landscapes, and architecture, and decaying infrastructure, and street photography? We have all seen clichés in these areas. My guess is, however, that we have also seen non-clichéd images in each of those categories as well. In fact, I cannot think of any area of photography, or any other art for that matter, that does not have its share of clichés, and, along with them, its share of original work.

A better way to approach this problem, rather than proscribing an entire category of subject matter, is to learn how to avoid the clichés. This, of course is more work, both for the student and for the instructor. You have to be familiar with enough of the work in any given category or subcategory to know what the clichés are and thus what to avoid. And that takes some time and some effort—perhaps more than the average student (or faculty member) is willing to invest. Then there is the requisite effort and imagination that goes into creating something new in those areas.

But the results are worth the effort. We are all familiar with photographers (and other artists) who work in areas that are rife with clichés, yet somehow manage create art that is refreshing, original, and often stunning.

And if those photographers can do it, why can’t those students who are improving their craft in art schools? Well, of course, they can. There may be no Mapplethorpes in the class, but there are likely some talented and original individuals who deserve the opportunity to test their skills and imaginations, no matter what area they decide to tackle.

And what is true for the students is also true for the rest of us. We might avoid a certain area of photography (or whatever our particular art is) because it’s not something that interests us or because we have nothing to say in that area, but to avoid it because we might step into cliché seems to be nothing but artistic cowardice.

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Date: Sunday, 5. June 2011 23:27
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Creativity, Originality, Photography

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