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What if we like the cliche?

A woman waits for the 7 train in Queens, December 2005

Every pursuit has its pretenses, and that statement is even more apparent when it comes to creative pursuits. Whatever you enjoy doing, someone will, without fail, tell you that you’re doing that thing the ”wrong” way. Usually the criticism of the work comes along with an additional ”You’re not a real x if you enjoy y.”

A few weeks ago, an article popped into my feed and it has been eating away at me since I first read it because of the amount of snide condescension it drips with so let’s dive in and discuss it because I think discussion about topics like this can help all of us grow as creators.

The article in question talks about travel photography, specifically, and implores readers to stop copying and start being creative when it comes to their photos of places. The implication, although the author specifically disclaims it, is that you're not a "real photographer" if you aren't taking super creative photos at all times. In fact, they outright say so.

Up front I have to say that there is nothing wrong with taking images that look similar to some that have been taken by others before you, but it is so much better to create something that is uniquely you. Sure, the picture you saw on Instagram of the Brooklyn Bridge got a gazillion likes, so it makes sense that you might want to stand in the exact same location as 2 zillion people before you to capture the same image, but where is the fun in that? Why copy someone else when you can create an image and tell a story that’s all you?

"So much better." Well, with strictly objective measurements like that who could even question it, right?

Let's tackle that point because it really does make up the bulk of the objection to the "cliche;" that doing something original is automatically better because it's unique. I reject that notion because I don't think something is "better" just by nature of what it is. In fact, I'd even say that anyone who thinks their thing is better simply because it's out of the box of what others do are probably the type of people who hate when their favorite local band goes mainstream because they've changed man. Totally.

As I started out in photography, I had the benefit of living in the boroughs of New York City and, by benefit of being there, I had more opportunities to take photos than most people. I took thousands of photos when I got my first SLR in 2005(ish). Some of them were breathtaking (in my opinion) takes on street life in New York City. Others? Skyline shots.

The NYC Skyline, September 2009

By the author's standards, the second photo in this article isn't original enough and is too much of a cliche. I love it, but he would pan it for what it is rather than how it looks.

He seems to be triggered by an application called Explorest that helps people find the spot that a popular photo was taken on so they can take it for themselves and his objections are look-down-the-nose predictable. He uses terms like copying, calls it "uncreative" and so on. Then he launches into a paragraph on why these apps are going to ruin spots (they're going to encourage overcrowding; really? That's a classic hipster argument).

But he completely misses a very salient point: an application like Explorest exists for a reason, and that reason is that people want to take those pictures. They like those pictures. Hell, I'm sure that a bunch of people are even doing them for Instagram clicks, to which I say... So what? Who's actually harmed? The presumption is that the only way to find photography rewarding is to take original never-before-done photos lest you be a mere plebe whose photos are nothing but clickbait on social media, but what if people get joy from having a picture from a "cliche" spot that they actually did? Or that they were in a spot that is iconic or famous and they captured it?

Why is that bad unless you're the type of person who believes that art has to be done "the right way," and by "the right way" clearly we're talking about the way that you think it should be done by the person with the camera in their hand.

And while this ranty condescending article comes down hard on photographers, it's just as bad in other creative pursuits. As someone in the maker space, particularly the woodworking space, it's very easy to see this sort of thing and dare I say I may be guilty of it myself from time to time.

In woodworking there are numerous cliches right now: live edges, hairpin legs, river tables, wireless charging, and media consoles. Mid-century modern and "industrial" is another and it's not to be done by farmhouse tables, and while nearly every one of these cliches make me want to puke a sawdust hairball, I also understand, inherently, that for some people this is their style. They like these things. They like the style, the artistic merit, the feel they get to have "one of those" in their house, etc. I don't like them (mostly) and I tend to move away from YouTube creators locked into those cliches, but I'll never tell someone they can't enjoy those things or that they're not creative simply because they're technically the same as dozens of other things out there.

As always I like to end my posts with a takeaway, and here's one: stop telling other people how to make art. There is no right or wrong way. If someone wants to spend their life taking the same photo that everyone else has taken, so be it. If they want to make a wireless charging live edge river console with wireless charging and hairpin legs, that's for them to decide.

There's no right way to art, and it's high time we stop telling other creatives that they're doing it wrong. Be supportive, or be quiet.


Speaking of creativity, I had the pleasure of being on my good friend David Szweduik's podcast Adventures in Creativity along with my long-time friend Ant Pruitt. It was so much fun and I would be so happy if you'd go take a listen because it really is a great conversation and while you're at it, subscribe if you're interested in the creative process and the world of creativity.

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