Photographic Clichés

"But if we think of what is going on in our world, many subjects are avoided because we all need that echo of familiarity to have the confidence to make a body of work."—Martin Parr

“But if we think of what is going on in our world, many subjects are avoided because we all need that echo of familiarity to have the confidence to make a body of work.”—Martin Parr

Fine art and documentary photographers take great pride in thinking themselves superior to the other genres of photography, such as the family snapshooter or the amateur photographer, as personified by camera club imagery. However, I have come to the conclusion that we too are fairly predictable in what we photograph. I include myself in this. While I have been very careful to try and think of new territories to explore, I recognise that very often, I also indulge in the list I am about to outline. Let me try and outline the basic genres.

1. The Above Ground Landscape, With People
This is a relatively recent development with the major influence of Gursky being the starting point. You take a high vantage point and place people within the frame, setting them in a larger landscape.

2. The Bent Lampost
You see this a lot in the USA , where they are blessed with many bent lamposts. The scene is urban and generally quite run down. This can be traced back to Stephen Shore, amongst others.

3. Pictures of Me and my Friends Getting High
Nan Goldin gave this genre a major boost with the famous Ballad of Sexual Dependency project, but there are predecessors with the likes of Larry Clarke and Ed van der Elsken.

4. The Nostalgic Gaze
Photographers love to shoot a factory, a shop, a club or some institution that is about to close. We, of course, welcome and praise the sense of community that is threatened.

5. The Quirky and Visually Strong Setting
We are much more likely to see a project done on a circus than say, a petrol station. The simple reason is that photographers love shooting situations where there is an inherent visual quirk. So we see plenty of subjects like mental hospitals and animal clinics.

6. The Street
Street photography has evolved in recent years, with many more humourous scenarios now making the edit, and of course the shift to colour. In Britain, we also have the great tradition of shooting on the beach, but this has declined in recent years because it is tricky to do this now without being accused of being a paedophile.

7. The Black and White Grainy Photo
Daido Moriyama is, if you like, the Godfather of this school of photography, and he combined the imagery of Andy Warhol and William Klein to arrive at this groundbreaking photographic language. The subject is a combination of cityscape and personal.

8. The New Rich
Think Tina Barney and of course, all those rich kids who attend Yale who turn their cameras on their own families. Nearly always shot in large format, and often involve taking clothes off too.

9. I am a Poet
This is the riskiest as it takes real panache to pull off. Images can find their roots in the likes of Bill Eggleston and Rinko Kawachi.

10. The Modern Typology
The Bechers and the Dusseldorf school have had a major impact on our photographic landscape. Many of the B division Becher students shoot typologies and run down buildings, beach huts, whatever can be found frequently.

11. The Staged Melodrama
With the increasing difficulty of shooting on the street and the desire to control, staging has found a new wave of popularity. Gregory Crewdson and Lisa Safarti have given this genre a major boost with their Hollywood style, staged scenarios.

12. The Formal Portrait
Recently revived by the likes of Reneke Dijsktra and Thomas Ruff. Smiling is banned and it often needs the structure of repetition.

13. The Long Landscape
Panoramas cameras are the latest fad for shooting landscapes, and a good view of icebergs or fjords is a perfect subject.

14. The Digital Manipulation
We are only a few clicks away from creating new photographs with very little reference to the real world. Loretta Lux has probably been the most successful artist to employ extremes of this variant.

15. Ruins
Photographers love decay and ruins, so much more interesting than shooting something nice and new.

I could go on, but I think you get the gist of what I am saying. I know many of you will now be thinking, “ What a cynic,” but firstly, there is much work that falls into these categories that I really respond to. The point I am making is that we need to consider our subject matter more carefully. When I am looking through student folios, I often say these things, and usually people look at me as if to say, “How dare you question what I am shooting?” But if we think of what is going on in our world, many subjects are avoided because we all need that echo of familiarity to have the confidence to make a body of work. We want to emulate the impact these images have had on us, and this can be as restricting as it can be liberating.

About Martin Parr: Probably the most unconventional of all Magnum photographers, Martin Parr’s images are as maverick as his views. At first glance, his photographs may seemexaggerated, with unusual subjects and kitschy colours. Look closer and one realises that Parr’s social commentary is a tongue-in-cheek take on the human condition.

This story was originally published in April 2012.

Tags: documentary photography, Visual Musings, Martin Parr, problem of photographers, lack of subjects, most commonly photographed subjects, photography cliches, opinion, shooting tips, fineart photography