To the lighthouse – photographing cliches

Talacre Lighthouse

There’s a wonderful beach at Talacre, in North Wales. Unfortunately it’s somewhat spoiled by the tacky caravan sites that line its edges for miles, but it’s big and beautiful enough to survive this.  At this time of year, there aren’t many holidaymakers and most people are there to walk and enjoy the open expanses.  One of the most photographed landmarks on this stretch of coast is the old lighthouse and the kind of shots you see are pretty similar to the one above (of course, many are lots better than this one, but all quite similar – interesting sky/sunset/sunrise, open stretch of beach, romantic lighthouse, etc).  I’ve been pondering the problem of photographing cliches for the past few years and have a few thoughts that I’d like to share with you here.

-It’s all been done before (but not by you). Of course it’s all been done before – there really isn’t anything new under the sun and no matter how original you think you are, somebody somewhere will be doing something similar.  This is especially true if you’re photographing something that’s hugely popular, whether because it’s a well-known landmark or just a popular subject, like flowers.  But the point is, you haven’t done it yet and you probably need to if only to get it out of your system.  Even if your image is no different or better than a million others, it was you who took it and you who have the experience and memory of being there.  It may not mean much to anyone else, but it has meaning for you and that really is enough to justify it (not that you should have to). And more importantly, if we weren’t allowed to do anything that’s been done before, we wouldn’t be able to do anything much at all.

-It’s been done before but you might be able to bring something new to the party. Two people can take the same shot, but it will be different – you’ll never take exactly the same shot as someone else even if you try.  There are instances where you might come close – one of these happened when I took a shot of an old window in Italy, and then came across someone online who’d taken the – almost – identical shot.  We used pretty much identical composition and framing, but her shot had more leaves on the vine surrounding the window and my shot had more interesting lighting.  The same, but not the same.  As it turned out – we’re now friends – we think and see very similarly.  But this is quite unusual – most of the time, if you put six photographers in front of the same scene, you’ll get six very different images.  The extent of these differences tends to reflect the extent of the group’s creativity, so in a group of beginners there’s likely to be more homogeneity than in a group of experienced photographers. But I’ve taught enough beginners to have seen that even people starting out will produce very different interpretations of the same subject matter.  You do have something to bring to the party.

– You usually need to do the cliched shots before you can hope for anything better. Only a tiny number of us can jump straight to being inventive and creative, and I expect even these people reject a lot of their early attempts.  Just as a writer wouldn’t expect to get a finished piece of work down at first go, and would write a rough draft that gets more and more refined with each edit, our first shots are likely to be ordinary and uninteresting.  Keep going, though, keep shooting, and eventually you’ll leave the obvious behind.  What happens is that you run out of ideas quite quickly and then you have to let something else take over.  The ‘something else’ is what’s going to give you what you want – boredom often leads to creativity.

– When it comes to cliches for subjects, there are basically two ways of tackling things. Once you’ve got the obvious shots out of the way, the first – and what usually feels like the easiest – is to look for something unusual or interesting or different.  The photos that follow are like this.  The strange cyberman-like figure on the lighthouse balcony was an obvious choice.  It leads to an image that’s interesting because it shows something unusual, rather than because of any particular cleverness on the photographer’s part.  It’s the content that makes this work.

Metallic man, Talacre Lighthouse

The next few are similar.  A number of roses had been carefully placed around the concrete base of the lighthouse, and there was a rose at each side of the door – one red, one yellow – flanking a small glittery candle.  Some kind of ritual or ceremony?  I don’t know, but it was intriguing.  Again, any interest these images have is because of the unusual juxtaposition of roses and lighthouse and doesn’t have a lot to do with the photographer.

Yellow roses, Talacre Lighthouse

Yellow rose, Talacre Lighthouse

Looking back down the lighthouse steps towards the beach produces a reasonably interesting shot because of its unusual angle and the contrast of the seaweed covered rocks with the sand surrounding it, but it’s without depth or emotion.  There’s not much I can get excited about in this shot.

Steps, Talacre Lighthouse

This one, I feel, is slightly better and has more of me in it.  I liked the way both the lighthouse and the post act as signs and echo each other.

Signpost, Talacre beach

– The second approach is less easy. You let yourself be guided by what draws you and what inspires you, regardless of whether it’s a new idea or not.  The hope is that something a little different will come out of it, but if it doesn’t you at least have the compensation of having had a great time taking the shots.  What immediately grabbed me when we walked onto the beach were the reflections in the seawater pools.  What I really liked was the ambiguity of the crystal clear lighthouse reflections mixed with the sand ripples and pebbles in the pool.  These are the shots that make me happy regardless of what anyone else thinks about them.  These are the shots that I got so excited about I couldn’t be pulled away. I don’t think they’re all that original – puddle reflections are a cliche in themselves – but it seems to me that they have something of ‘me’ in them that the other shots don’t, and that’s a result.

Reflection 1, Talacre Lighthouse

Reflection 3, Talacre Lighthouse

Reflection 2, Talacre Lighthouse