Big_FeministCliche 2013© Adrienne Doig, Feminist Cliché (Dresden Plate), 2012. Patchwork, appliqué and embroidery on linen, 99 x 77 cm.

excerpts from Lynn Berger‘s SNAPSHOTS, or: Visual Culture’s Clichés, published in Photographies Vol.4, No.2, September 2011, pp.175–190.

“We use the word “cliché” advisedly. As it happens, the genealogies of the cliché — an “expression or idea that has lost its originality or force through overuse” (American Heritage Dictionary) — and the snapshot go back to the same point of origin: the printing workshops of nineteenth century France. There, cliché was the name of the metal plate or mould on the printing press “from which reproductions of print or design could be made in unending quantity”. Under this mechanical definition the cliché moved into the English language, where it first appeared — or so the Oxford English Dictionary informs us — in Charles Babbage’s 1832 Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. Thus intimately tied to the printed word, its use was later expanded to denote the negative in photography. From the start, then, the cliché was an emblem of the “age of mechanical reproduction” (Benjamin).

In the nineteenth century, “a growing awareness of mass production in word and thought” (Flaubert) coincided with Romantic pre-occupations with originality and creativity, and in this context the cliché was seen as the linguistic denial of such individual attributes — indeed, as the very antithesis of original thought. According to historian Walter Ong, a “strong disapproval of the cliché is a regular concomitant of the romantic state of mind… subconsciously convinced that what is already known does not require repetition because what is known is stored in books whereas art is necessarily a venture into the unknown.”

So, here is the parallel: at the end of the nineteenth century, the cliché had become for language what the amateur snapshot would shortly represent for photography: a symbol of the lowest common denominator, an emblem of the boring, the repetitive, and the formulaic.

The cliché is a cultural product of a technological change, with middle-class connotations. The amateur snapshot is the exact same thing. Both are associated with the common man, indeed, both are commonplace. Clichés may vary slightly from one to the next (and to be sure “some variability in the standardization does not disqualify the expression as formulary so long as the expression retains its effective identity”, as Walter Ong has written: Rhetoric, Romance 288), and the same is true of snapshot photographs: “each [snapshot] captures a unique pose, even if that pose obediently repeats million other, very similar poses. They are all the same, but they are all also just slightly different from each other”, Geoffrey Batchen has observed (“Snapshots” 125).

The cliché is a political phenomenon. Terms like “containers for memory” and “mnemonic devices” may suggest a mere instrumentality and passivity, but clichés and snapshots in turn influence consciousness and perception as well.”

big8© Adrienne Doig, AD Libitum, 2012. Embroidery on tapestry, 45 x 46.5 cm.

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