Cliche, a four letter word

All  Images from Joshua Tree National Park 

As many of you know, I recently completed a four-week stint as artist-in-residence in Joshua Tree National Park. It was a wonderful experience and, as in my three previous artist residencies, I think I am coming away a more refined and thoughtful photographer. That is, after all, the primary reason why I like to take advantage of these opportunities. Sure, the opportunity to make a handful of new, decent-quality photos is great, but I’m in photography for the long haul and am concerned more about the photographs I will make tomorrow than those I made yesterday. We are, as some have said, only as good as our next set of photographs.

Immersive opportunities such as artist residencies are also very good at inspiring thought and contemplation about issue relating to, at least in my case, the art of photography. And at each residency, the major issues occupying my thoughts and fears revolve around the word “cliché.” It is a dirty word, a vile word, and it signifies much of what is wrong with photography today. It is something I try to avoid like the plague (or like vegetables). But it takes effort. It takes consideration. And it takes sacrifice. Most of all, it takes commitment.

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Glacier National Park

The approaches I take to try and avoid creating overly derivative, or cliché, work, especially when working in areas much photographed, is to not attempt to define that particular area (the opposite of what photo guides books encourage us to do). What do I mean by that? Simply that I don’t care if viewers can identify where a particular image was made as long as I, personally, find that scene meaningful and compelling. That frees me from having to include location-based, recognizable detail such as Zion’s Subway, Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, or Moonset over the Grand Tetons when I am in those particular parks. Instead, I allow myself to freely respond to whatever visual elements capture my interest, no matter how intimate or distant the scene, or how “generic” that scene may at first appear. After all, as an artist I am creating by and for myself. It is a liberating approach that opens up limitless possibilities and allows me to react with emotion and personal aesthetics, rather than limiting myself with preconceived expectations.

As an example, while visiting Zion National Park with my wife last week, we overheard a photo workshop participant say to a friend that he early found a scene which would have made a very nice image, but didn’t make an exposure because he realized it could have been made anywhere. In other words, he passed on a photo subject he found worthy because it did not scream “Zion.”

I felt sorry for him.

I am sure he came away with defining (and derivative) photos of scenes like The Temples and Towers of the Virgin, and of The Watchtower (hopefully not The Subway as that is off limits to photo workshops), but he passed on the scene he discovered himself, a scene which would have been a personal triumph over the mediocrity of usual.

We would all do more significant work if we would just open ourselves up to the limitless visual opportunities that the world provides, even in popular areas, rather than hobbling ourselves with preconceived expectations and derivative postcard-type images.

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Yellowstone National Park

So the next time you find yourself in a popular area, such as a national park, make the effort, the commitment, the sacrifice, to avoid what is expected, what has already been done, and give credence to the different, the unexpected, and the personal. In other words, be free.

Doesn’t that sound like a helluva lot more fun?