by Mike Johnston
If you're involved in sports, you probably have a hard time believing things. The year
you just had ("we had an unbelievable year"), the way you just played ("I
played unbelievable out there"), the opportunity you were given to play for the team,
the "whole organization" you're playing for, the fact that the ball went into
the basket or out of the ballpark or whatever it was supposed to do. It might even be
necessary to point out to non-English-speakers that when one of our athletes says someone
is "an unbelievable guy," he is not necessarily calling him a liar.
It's well known that, in our culture, we strongly encourage our athletes to finish
college, where what they mainly learn is how to refer to themselves in the third person
and speak entirely in clichés. This is to train them to give the appearance of saying
something when they speak, while at the same time allowing them to say nothing. (As is
also well known, when an athlete slips and actually does say something, it's
often news. For instance, when an athlete is accused of domestic violence, the whole
organization would definitely not find it unbelievable if the athlete were to slip up and
blurt out, "bitch disrespected [insert athlete's own name]!" Likewise, at the
post-game press conference, the organization does not want the athlete pointing out that
the coach is a flustered cretin who took leave of his senses at the worst possible time
during the game, even if that's exactly what happened.)
"Rosie," taken in the dark by infrared illumination (Sony
For photographers, too, clichés present inviting opportunities for appearing to make
pictures while not actually saying, or meaning, anything.
The urge to make clichés stems from a desire to make pictures that look like everybody
else's pictures. Why would anybody want to do this? Personally I think it's because it
relieves us from having to rely only on our own judgment when evaluating what we've done.
Photographers, far more than other kinds of artists, are perpetually insecure about
whether what they've done is going to be accepted as good. I also think photographers like
clichés because, at an early stage of our development, it's a way of demonstrating
competence and accomplishment. You can tell you're in this stage because the phrases
"that looks like a professional took it!" and "it looks like a
postcard!" are construed as compliments, and make us swell up with pride. (Later, of
course, those kinds of comments become insults.)
So what's a photographic cliché? As with pornography, you're supposed to know it when
you see it. I suppose we might define it as "conventional subjects shown in a
conventional way." That this leaves each of us to define "conventional" for
ourselves is probably a good thing.
Conventions, of course, change. In the style known as "pictorialism"
largely defined through the journal Camera Work by Alfred Steiglitz, who later
grew bored by it it was conventional, for some reason I never understood, to
include a large glass globe in many pictures (guild secret? Masonic talisman? Esoteric
symbology? Beats me). During the Eisenhower years, it was conventional that pictures be
robust, cheerful, forward-looking, even heroic (which fortunately didn't hamper the
ebullient Eisie, one of the great photographers of those days). Lately, convention can be
found on tony art-gallery walls, where "photographers" no other photographers
have heard of display fey, fatuous, flat, fuzzy, foreboding photos of nothing,
If you're smiling at that, don't get cocky. Amateurs are even worse. After last week's
column, Ken Croft (who gets the blame for triggering these latest rants of mine, by the
I can now fully understand the fascination of the Nun in Venice. When I said I didn't
like it, I thought that was the truth. If I analyze my thoughts, I probably dismissed it
because I subconsciously realized that I would not expect my immediate friends to like it,
if I had taken it myself. I guess I have drifted into taking pictures that friends and
family will like, or that might win competitions, in order to win admiration and approval,
rather than taking pictures just for myself.
That's an acute, perceptive insight. After twenty years (I'm not gonna start saying
"twenty-five" until I absolutely have to) of teaching and writing about and
learning about photography, I firmly believe that Ken's insight describes what many of us
do (or try to do), at least at first, and sometimes for many years. What informs the taste
of people who pursue clichés, then, is their idea of the taste of others. Not
the actual taste of others, mind you, but just the photographer's best
attempts at second-guessing.
Be confident, baby
That's no way to live. As with many things, photography is often about self-confidence.
The point is not so much to learn what other people like that's ultimately a fool's
errand but to learn what you like. Only by identifying your own
concerns and becoming comfortable with your own taste will you stand a chance of
developing an organic style, or signature, or way of seeing, that is neither imitative
("designed to be like something else, but usually inferior to the original") or
I think this is why rebellious and nonconformist teenagers often make the best
photography students. They don't want to conform. They don't work to please.
We each are stuck with using our own taste as the foundation for what's good or bad,
because the taste of others is so varied and unpredictable. If I found one person who
loved one particular picture of yours and and gushed about it on and on, praising it to
the skies, and another person who hated it and pronounced it worthless, what would that
teach you? If you learn your own taste and cultivate self-confidence, you can be secure in
the face of either reaction.
When you know with a quiet but solid confidence that you truly like one of your
pictures and you're not shaken in the least when someone says, "What the hell is the
point of that?" or "I hate that!", you're there. Go for it. Dare to be
different; be yourself. Eschew cliché.
SMP Book of the Week
Hutterites of Montana, by Laura Wilson, Yale University Press, 2000, ISBN
0-300-08339-4. Book design by Fred Woodward, printed by Stamperia Valdonega, Verona,
Laura Wilson is a commercial photographer who was Richard Avedon's assistant when he
did the photographs for In the American West ; you can see traces here of the
hard, bright style of the professional. And given the subject picturesque
Anabaptists one could be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that this is
another "folksploitation" book wherein a strange and odd minority are plumbed
ruthlessly for the sake of pictorial stereotypy.
But that would be wrong, I think. Laura Wilson spent a great deal of time over a number
of years with the Hutterites of Montana (the other two major, and better known, groups of
Anabaptists in America being the Mennonites and the Amish; and Hutterites colonies are
also found in North Dakota and Canada), and gradually won their trust and friendship and
overcame their innate refusal to be photographed. I have to confess up front to a weakness
for the American West and for pastoral lifestyles in general or perhaps just
sentimental idealization of pastoral lifestyles I loved the movie
"Witness," for instance so perhaps I'm a sucker for this type of book.
But then again, I haven't seen many books on the Amish that I like, despite liking the
Amish. For the reader/viewer, Laura Wilson has created a legitimate experience of real
peoples' real lives that helps us understand and get to know this essentially foreign
minority who are (technically, at least) in our midst. I wish Laura Wilson would do a
similar project on the Pine Ridge reservation.
There's a slight ambiguity about presentation. Many of the pictures, in some cases the
best ones, are filleted across both pages of a spread and thus split down the middle by
the gutter. Normally, I at least dislike, and sometimes as much as loathe, this
all-too-common design failing. Most photography books are too big, and most photos in
books are too big, as if book designers are afraid we won't see the pictures otherwise.
But in Hutterites of Montana, while this design device sort of doesn't work, it
sort of does work, too. I have to admit it seems to suit the wide open
spaces of the Montana plains, the big skies, silos, and far-flung flocks of sheep. I guess
I decided not to mind it, and so, perhaps predictably, didn't. But you might, especially
if you're typically annoyed by photos arbitrarily broken in two.
I tend to like pictures which show me something interesting about real life, so I
appreciated learning about the Hutterites and seeing them through Wilson's sympathetic,
humane eye. The book balances pictures and its well-written text nicely. The pictures are
well done: they earn one of my highest accolades, honest . That they and/or their
subjects are also often beautiful is a bonus. The printing is above average even by
todays's high standards.
In sum, a nicely conceived, nicely executed, well-made book that I enjoyed, and am
pleased to add to my shelf.
- Content: B
- Reproductions: B
- Presentation: A or C, depending (see review text)
- Bookcraft: B
- Synergy and intangibles: B
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