Get the Cliché Out of the Way When Doing Photography

I drove 5,200 miles around the country after my junior year in college. And I brought 20 rolls of film — 720 images in all — which was a lot in 1984. I felt like a pro, traveling with a “brick” of Tri-X. When you shoot film you try hard not to waste frames; it’s a natural force function that filters out some of the more idiotic shots you might take.

Now, Mt. Rushmore is pretty much the only thing to see as you’re crossing South Dakota (that, and Wall Drug) and even though it’s an hour-long diversion from the Interstate, I did it.

When you’re standing before Mt. Rushmore I promise you, it is virtually impossible — like a curse — not to point your camera at the four dudes and frame up a shot that looks like every postcard, every snapshot ever taken of the monument. I remember standing there and fighting the urge. I failed:

Typical shot of the monument (Rubin, 1984) although I did try to use the window frames to make it more interesting or different…

But once I shot that “obvious” shot, I was free to explore alternative approaches. What are constraints that limit me that aren’t inherent in the scene? Can I get to another vantage point? Can this be shot in a fresh way? Do I even need all four presidents? The lessons of synecdoche reminded me that it doesn’t take the full-frontal to make it clear this is Mt. Rushmore.

In fact, it dawned on me that I had never really looked at the rock cliff from which the sculpture was carved. Shooting more rock and less face felt unique and satisfying. My exploration was simply how little of Lincoln did I need to include to signal this rocky cliff was at the edge of Rushmore.

And So, the Lesson

Don’t fight that desire to shoot the obvious shot, particularly if you’re not on film. Digital photography makes the cost of exploration almost nil. My podcast co-host Suzanne Fritz-Hanson came up with a pithy way to describe the phenomenon: “Get the cliché out of the way.” Once you’ve shot that horrible, obvious, utterly unoriginal cliché, you are set free. Give yourself that gift.

Much of my personal photography is about shooting the most shot, most famous, most popular subjects in ways that feel fresh, personal, and unique. It’s a high bar for myself and good practice. Whether shooting a flower, a monument, or a friend, I really can’t start work until I take that first icky cliché, and then I can begin.

So if you’re like me and want to shoot more original-feeling images, don’t beat yourself up if you still take the most unoriginal pictures of it. You have to start somewhere, and just settle on the fact that you’re not done.

Coit Tower pretty much like most Coit Tower shots…
…and then Coit Tower later that night. (Rubin, 2015).
Nothing says “Paris” like the Eiffel Tower…
…but once I got the more typical presentations out of the way, I was able to play around with more nuanced ways to include it. (Rubin, 2016)

P.S. If you enjoy this way of approaching photography I encourage you to take one of my workshops through the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. There are periodic 3-week online programs (6 sessions), and this August there is an in-person 1-week intensive that should be fun for any creative amateur, maybe if you’ve plateaued, feel like you’re good at picture taking, but want to push yourself. Anyway, Thanks for listening.

About the author: Michael Rubin, formerly of Lucasfilm, Netflix and Adobe, is a photographer and host of the podcast “Everyday Photography, Every Day.” The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. To see more from Rubin, visit Neomodern or give him a follow on Instagram. This article was also published here.