Lynn Berger speaks about the development of the word cliché over the years as it maintained its core definition of lacking original thought, but varied in where it was used and how.
Berger first makes a connection between cliché and vernacular photography. She discusses about cliché first being defined as two phenomena, one as visual and two linguistic. Berger personally stands by cliché being more visual explaining that it is “an expression or idea that has lost its originality or force through overuse”. She further relates the concept of cliché to snapshot photography which is “predictable, conservative, and repetitive in both form and context”. Berger gives an example of their connection and relation through Martin Parr’s 1990 photograph of The Leaning Tower of Pisa. It is cliché because tourists all pose the same way to achieve the same boring, bland photograph—one of the biggest qualities of snapshot photography. Berger continues to make a point as she states that tourist photographs are “staple of amateur photographic practice”, just as most snapshots are. They constantly challenge professional photographers to find another way of going about photography, a method that will “account for the determined banality” of snapshots. Snapshots are described as cliché in visual form.
The word cliché began to be used more widely as time progressed. Cliché was the name of a metal plate, a mechanical part of a printing press that functioned as a constant stamp to reproduce countless prints or designs. The meaning of cliché quickly shifted from mechanical to cultural with the introduction to Kodak’s Brownie camera in 1888. The Brownie was made for “amateur photography”. Before the Brownie, photography was often, if not only, done by professionals along with its complicated process of exposing and developing films. Photography was made simpler, resulting in more cliché shots—shots that were obviously taken by “the causal snapshooter”. With repetitiveness that these photographs developed, thought and originality was lost. Even so, the repetitiveness of these snapshots somehow worked as a “mnemonic device”, much like daguerreotypes. Berger mentions how these photos are passed down from generation to generation, carrying a bit of the past to the future. Sociologist Anton Zijderveld makes a positive point as she says that clichés “contain experiences and observations of former generations”. An example of current cliché is Flickr, a photo based site/ app for people to post images, group and organize them to their liking. Aside from your personal category, Flickr provides various set categories that are visual forms of cliché—the most common photographs are immediately classified as the most popular, thus most repeated.
So what exactly constitutes a cliché snapshot? From reading Berger’s words, it seems to be a photograph that is constant and quickly taken, the faster, the less originality and meaning. Considering how people naturally strive for instant gratification, it makes perfect sense how cliché has exisited in the past and has become more prominent in our era today. What’s quick is favored and what’s favored is followed, which leads to cliché. It is almost ironic to call something that is overdone cliché (which is defined as boring), when the entire reason to how it became cliché was because it was what most people preferred (which is defined as a positive liking).
Berger’s opinions on cliché and its connection to snapshot photography was an interesting one. I agree with her definition of cliché and how it has changed. As a designer, I am constantly trying to find new ways to make a product more effective and less cliché. Cliché is outdated and overdone. Even so, it is necessary in letting us know what is overdone exactly in order to continue to challenge us in our field.