Fine Art

A Cliche Photograph: Should I Make It?

I consider this photograph a cliche. It’s a well-known composition, and I’ve seen it done many times. So my question is, as an artist, should I have made this photograph?

Pier in San Diego

First, why should I not have made this photograph? Well, it’s a very specific composition and is therefore not original. It’s one thing to go to the Grand Canyon and make photographs there. Of course that’s been done before, but every artist can find a unique perspective or way of presenting the Grand Canyon that is unique to that artist. The subject is enormous and offers many possibilities. The under-the-pier photograph is different because it doesn’t offer as much flexibility. The subject is a simple object. It’s a pier in the ocean. We’re standing underneath it. There’s not much more to it than that. In fact, its simplicity is one of the qualities that makes the composition so strong. So perhaps I am just copying what others have done when I make this photograph, and that might make it less legitimate.

On the other hand, this is my photograph. I made it. I did not go out specifically to make this image. I was on the beach and came across the pier and was inspired in the moment to make the photograph based in part on my internal database of ideas I have seen before. I selected the focal length and the details of the composition, how much of the pier to show and from what angle, etc. I chose to make it a long exposure. I also applied my own style of retouching to arrive at the final image shown here. So in reality I did have a lot of control over how the photograph was created and what the final outcome would be. This is definitely my photograph. Maybe the subject and general way in which I captured it are not original, but I applied my own style to the final image to make it my own.

Why did I make this photograph? Again, I did not go out specifically intending to create this photograph. If I had, I probably would have gone at a different time of day to get different lighting conditions. Instead, I simply found the pier and decided to do it. Why? Because it is an interesting subject and does make a good photograph. I wanted to see what I could do with this image. What might I bring to it that nobody else does? We can ask the same question of a musician playing someone else’s composition. Many other musicians might play that tune, but what is one particular musician’s interpretation going to be? What are they going to bring to the table that is unique to them? That’s how I see this photograph. It’s somebody else’s idea, but it’s my interpretation.

Incidentally, many people passed by while I was positioned under the pier with my tripod. On at least two occasions, I noticed someone pull out his iPhone and snap a picture of the pier from just off to the side of where I was. Would they have done that had I not been there with my tripod and camera?

So is this a photograph I would include in my portfolio? I’m not sure. It represents my capabilities and style as an artist. It just doesn’t fully represent my creative eye because I can’t be certain that I would have made this composition had I not seen others make it before. Does any of that matter? Again, I’m not sure, but at least I found it interesting to think and write about.

Creating Art: The Grand Canyon Desert View Watchtower

On my last trip to Grand Canyon National Park, I visited Desert View in the eastern part of the park on the south rim. At Desert View you will find the Watchtower, which is a stone tower that appears to be much older than it is. It looks like it could be from Medieval times, or at least from a couple of centuries ago, but in reality it was built in 1932.

The Watchtower at Desert View,  Grand Canyon
The Watchtower at Desert View, Grand Canyon

I visited Desert View with the intention of shooting the sunset. Unfortunately, it was perfectly clear, so I wasn’t going to be able to make the kind of sunset photograph I like most. I tried to make the best of it, though. I made the image below that evening. Once I had this image, I did not wait for the sun to drop below the horizon. I was ready to move on.

Sunset from Desert View at the Grand Canyon
Sunset from Desert View at the Grand Canyon

I turned my attention to the Watchtower. The tower is an interesting structure, and I think it offers many opportunities for photography. I am planning a sunset shot that includes both the canyon and the tower, but that will require a more dramatic sky. This night I had only clear skies, so I decided to do something a little different.

I shot the tower with the idea that I might be able to give it a more dramatic look later on in my post-processing. I did a few things to this image to give it this look. First, I selected a picture of gray, stormy clouds from my catalog that I had taken in the past. I blended that image into the tower photo. I then removed almost all the color from the photograph. Next, I used a split toning technique, which involves adding a warm color like yellow or orange to the highlights (the brightest parts of the image), and a cool color like green, blue, or purple to the shadows (the darker parts of the image). That’s a common photographic technique that can create an interesting look in an image. Finally, I made some exposure and contrast adjustments to finish off the photograph.

I like the result. It’s funny because this is not what it was like that night at all. To me this image is dark, gloomy, a little mysterious, and maybe even foreboding. In reality, it was a beautiful, warm, clear evening. My effort was an artistic endeavor in which I reshaped reality to conform to something I imagined, to create something completely different.

It’s amazing what you can do with a little post-processing! In fact, I could have shot the canyon/tower image I mentioned above and then later substituted an appropriate sky from my catalog to create the final image I have in mind. I don’t like doing that, however. In landscape photography I almost never do it. It’s one of the challenges and rewards of landscape photography. You have to be patient, and sometimes it takes multiple trips to get the image you want, but the end result is worth it.

I am not opposed to making dramatic changes to a photograph for artistic purposes, however, and that’s what I did here. It’s a lot of fun to do! When I make the canyon/tower sunset image, though, it will be much closer to reality than this image is.