When is a cliché not a cliché? Reconsidering Mass-Produced Sunsets

Annebella Pollen

Sunsets are everywhere. Nightly they appear, vast and humbling, orange, pink and purple. Like snowflakes, it is said that every single one is different. Natural, ephemeral and beautiful, they constitute exactly the kind of subject that causes people to reach for a camera: the fleeting spectacle that photography seems made to capture; the momentary vision that deserves immortalising. Sunset photographs, however, are a different matter: they have come to represent the most predictable, culturally devalued and banal of image-making practices. Critics dismiss them as ‘chocolate box’ or ‘picture postcard’; they are seen as clichés. The beauty of a sunset can be transformed, in a photograph, into something cloying. Their very ubiquity is what seems to repel; photography has tainted what it sought to cherish through overuse. It miniaturises natural grandeur and renders it kitsch. In this essay, I want to begin by sketching in the origins of some of this critique, and follow by taking apart some of the assumptions beneath the dismissals by looking at amateur sunset photographs in both historical and contemporary practice.

Susan Sontag, in her famous book, On Photography, complained: Photographs create the beautiful and - over generations of picture-taking - use it up. Certain glories of nature... have been all but abandoned to the indefatigable attentions of amateur camera buffs. The image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs. [1]

Sontag here, in part, blames photographic mass-production for the loss of wonder, but she also positions sunset photographs as the products of the aesthetically naive. As she puts it, elsewhere in the book, "In photography's earliest decades, photographs were expected to be idealized images. This is still the aim of most amateur photographers, for whom a beautiful photograph is a photograph of something beautiful, like a woman, a sunset." [2] Nearly twenty years later, for professional photographer and photography critic Julian Stallabrass, the image-making practices of amateurs are synonymous with the object in question: the title of his largely dismissive 1996 chapter on the widespread popularity of hobby photography is entitled ‘Sixty Billion Sunsets’. [3] Stallabrass’s denigration of mass photographic practice is based on what he perceives to be its overwhelmingly conventionalised sameness (unlike elite art practices, which are positively polarised as avant-garde, creative and distinctive). In commodified camera culture, everyone takes photos of similar things; in sunset photographs, then, it seems, every single one is the same.

Equivalent, perhaps, to images of kittens or thatched cottages, sunset photographs have a low cultural status: they are characterised as sentimental visual confectionary indicative of limited aesthetic vision and an undeveloped practice; as childlike pleasures. Sontag’s statements in particular imply that more experienced and aspirational photographers grow out of the sugary-sweet excesses of their early days and come to prefer the more restrained pleasures and acquired tastes of legitimate art. This attitude is echoed in Robert Castell and Dominique Schnapper’s sociological study of camera club activity in the 1960s. They quote a camera club member who dismisses what he calls "photography which is too 'pretty'". He states:  “You come across clichés particularly among the beginners: hackneyed subjects. As soon as you have a little photographic education you can't look at them anymore". [4]

All of those quoted above share attitudes with the many cultural critics long before them who have posited sober and minimalist taste as a sign of ‘advanced’ cultural superiority. These ideas can be found in the often striking manifestos of modernist aesthetes, such as Viennese architect Adolf Loos, for example, who promoted plainness as a virtue, and famously claimed in 1908 that ornament is crime. [5] A pertinent example was also espoused in the bestselling Meaning of Culture by John Cooper Powys in 1930, where he claimed:

the less cultured you are, the more you require from nature before you can be roused for reciprocity. Uncultured people require blazing sunsets, awe-inspiring mountains, astonishing waterfalls, masses of gorgeous flowers, portentious signs in the heavens, exceptional weather on earth, before their sensibility is stirred to a response. Cultured people are thrilled through and through by the shadow of a few waving grass-blades upon a little flat stone... [6]

The issue here is “cultivation” and “culture” or, more prosaically, training. Although photographic judgement is often naturalised (and somewhat mystified) as originating in a seemingly innate gift (sometimes called “the good eye”), photographic “vision” – in the sense of having a honed aesthetic disposition – is undoubtedly a manifestation of acquired knowledge. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has so persuasively argued, categories of taste are grounded in ingrained and stratified social and cultural experience and may be utilised to reinforce distinctions between different social groups. For Bourdieu, this is nowhere more clearly visible than in practices such as photography, which, because they are “accessible to everyone” and also “not fully consecrated” like other more legitimated cultural forms, lack a fixed and explicit coding system for judgement. This consequent flexibility of interpretation, he believes, means that the subjective meanings that different groups attribute to photography betrays their social dispositions. [7]

In Bourdieu’s research in the 1960s, in which he examined taste as means of social distinction, he initiated discussions about aesthetic value with a range of people from different educational and occupational backgrounds, in relation to particular cultural objects including, tellingly, a photograph of a sunset. For, despite sunset photographs’ apparent mass-produced sameness, not all photographs of sunsets are equally received; they divide opinion. Bourdieu found:

the higher the level of education, the greater is the proportion who, when asked whether a series of objects would make beautiful photographs, refuse the ordinary objects of popular admiration – a first communion, a sunset or a landscape – as ‘vulgar’ or ‘ugly’, or reject them as ‘trivial’, silly, a bit ‘wet’... [8]

Yet, his conclusion is not simply that sunsets appeal most to the uneducated. Bourdieu extends the stratification:

the proportion who declare that a sunset can make a beautiful photo is greatest at the lowest educational level, declines at intermediate levels [...] and grows strongly again among those who have completed several years of higher education and who tend to consider that anything is suitable for beautiful photography. [9]

Neatly encapsulating photographic hierarchies, then, sunsets are the kind of subject that can be variously adored, despised or tolerated depending on aesthetic outlook and social background.

In Bourdieu’s experiment, a single sunset photograph was appraised differently according to viewers’ varied aesthetic dispositions. Elsewhere, in photographic advice literature, wide ranges of differing sunsets are regularly appraised for their aesthetic merits with strikingly similar advice. For while Bourdieu argued that there is no explicit coding system of judgement for photographs, in fact, a substantial body exists (and indeed was well in place by the 1960s). The wealth of popular literature aimed at developing amateur photographic competency and aesthetic improvement is vast, enduring and ever-expanding, and competitions and exhibitions have been evaluating popular photography at all levels since their 19th century origins. Despite or, more likely, because of photography’s fundamental simplicity, an unending stream of advice has flowed to guide, prescribe, and also, at times, to complicate and even mystify the process of making photographs. In the photo press and the evening class, in manuals and camera clubs, in online blogs and discussion boards, stylistic and technical recommendations, from the rudimentary to complex, are offered to photographers in pursuit of that most nebulous and yet contentious of products: “a good photo”.

Whether it is long-standing recommendations about straightening the horizon, following the rule of thirds or foregrounding interesting silhouettes, sunsets are no exception to prescriptions about composition, technique and subject matter – a simple internet search for ‘how to take good sunset photos’ reveals the extent of available advice: whether you want five, twelve or thirty tips, hundreds if not thousands of sites will provide. Despite their evident allure as a photographic subject, therefore, not all sunsets are the same: technically and aesthetically, some are “good”, some are “bad”. In advice for the aspirational or serious photographer, maintaining standards is of paramount importance in the realm of popular subjects if one wants to rise above ‘the ordinary’. As just one example of advice, from a book Make Your Pictures Win, the author complains:

Photographic competitions overflow with mediocre, uninteresting and downright badly-photographed sunsets. Just because the sky has turned a pretty shade of orange and red, many photographers think they need to do little more than point their camera and shoot. Even the most proficient of photographers often turns into a snapshooter when faced with the sight of a waning sun. [10]

A ‘good’ sunset, from the perspective of the aspiring photographer, requires discipline.

To examine how these hierarchies play out in practice, I would like to examine a particular body of sunset photographs, submitted to a large-scale amateur photography competition. For this is where I first became interested in sunsets: when examining the history of amateur photography for a larger project, I researched a vast and little known archive of photographic prints and was faced with thousands of sunset examples. They were to be found, abundantly, among the 50,000 rejects to the competition, among the longlist and the shortlist, and the overall winner was a sunset too. The One Day for Life photography competition, 25 years ago, had ambitions to be the biggest photographic event the world had ever seen.[11] Via an ambitious national press campaign, “everyone with a camera” was invited to take a photograph of everyday life in Britain on 14th August 1987, to compete for a place in a commemorative book and to raise money for charity (each submission was to be accompanied by a pound entry fee). With no particular prescription as to subject matter or style, the 55,000 submissions – preserved as an archive at the University of Sussex – appear to offer, at first glance, a tantalising cross-section of popular photographic practice on one randomly selected day. What is notable when looking through the collection, however, is that despite the open-ended invitation, certain subjects and styles predominate, with a very noticeable preponderance of sunrises and sunsets. At first glance, this seemed to be a straightforward vindication of the dismissive claims made earlier: that, given a camera and the opportunity to compete for a prize, most people would consider a sunset to be the superlative subject of a “good photo”. But before we leap to the conclusion that this abundance of pretty skies provides evidence that popular photography is riddled with clichés and is a waste ground for those lacking in imagination, it is worth taking a closer look at the particular context for these images.

The One Day for Life project was designed to result in a book of winning photographs arranged in a chronological 24-hour format, so the preponderance of sunsets is perhaps as much to do with contributors’ ambitions to mark a visible time of day as it is to do with the sunset as the supremely photographable amateur subject. Additionally, sunsets can act as that which is signified – that is, the subject of the photograph – but also act as a signifier of amateur photography. In a project that was perceived by some to include and therefore be ‘about’ amateur photography, some photographers told me that they performed ‘the ordinary’ as a style, looking for ‘everyday’ subjects and using candid formats to fit the brief. In this bracket are also those that submitted ‘bad’ photographs as knowing, eye-catching statements; the sunset as signifier of amateur photography may be found too among these entries. This was certainly the purpose the sunset served as a book cover, where the book designer was concerned to show at-a-glance that the book was a book of photographs (not of dogs, people, etc); the sunset made the subject of photography metonymically visible. [12]

As testified by many photographers in letters accompanying their photographs and in interview with me, there was frequently a disjuncture between the conventional pictorial forms the photographs utilised (what the photographs were of) and the sometimes complex, and at times counternarrative, informational and emotional content that they are expected to convey (what the photographs were about). Sunsets in the One Day for Life archive perform a variety of social as well as aesthetic functions: they may support personal portraits of loved ones; they may comment on larger issues, such as unemployment in the 1980s, when foregrounded by the silhouette of a disused pit head; and they can even figure as a commentary on illness and death - in a project that aimed to raise money for cancer charities - in the case of a photograph of industrial chimneys at sunset that connected pollution with ill-health, or with the photograph accompanied by the inscription: “A sunset I would not have seen if I had not gone to the doctor’s with the first symptoms of cancer”. Their potential to be, at once, undistinguished and prize-winning, clichéd and rich with supporting meaning, is evidently the case with the overall ‘winning’ image, which, despite its ‘chocolate box’ appearance, was a photograph taken in and of the Republic of Ireland, and was intended to function as a critical political commentary on the nationalist limitations of One Day for Life’s British focus at the time of the Troubles. [13]

The preponderance of examples given from historical literature and archives might suggest that the significance of sunsets to ways of thinking about photographic hierarchies is dated. While there is a compelling case to be made that we live in ever more visually-literate times and are becoming increasingly aesthetically knowledgeable, it is notable that many of the ambitious claims made for the digital revolution have not necessarily been borne out in terms of popular photographic practice. For the largest groups of amateurs, the social function of photography remains paramount and while the format of images and the means for their dissemination has changed fundamentally, there is much to show that preferred photographic subjects do not differ enormously from enduring patterns. Images of friends, family and leisure continue to dominate. [14] Additionally, in terms of advice given to aspiring practitioners, continuities rather than changes prevail. Pictorial advice given in the pages of interwar Amateur Photographer magazine, for example, parallels rules laid out in amateur photography advice blogs in 2012. All are clear about what makes a good picture.

What has changed for amateur practice with the advent of digital photography is the amount of images produced and the new opportunities for their public circulation. As Lynn Berger has argued, one of the consequences of this new “amplification” of photography (where 6,000 photographs are uploaded to Flickr per minute), “it is much easier for anyone to see the kinds of images produced and thereby to notice even more the ‘stereotypical character’ of the vast majority of them.” [15] Certainly, as artist Penelope Umbrico has shown, in her ongoing project 8,730,221 Suns from Flickr (2011), sunsets endure as the superlative photographic subject. Umbrico’s project began when she searched for sunsets as a subject on Flickr in 2006 and discovered half a million examples. She then cropped just the sun from these images and printed a partial representation of the mass in a grouped format that borders on the mathematical sublime. The title of this work changes whenever the work is exhibited to reflect the ever-rising quantity of sunsets available on Flickr on the day that the work is hung; currently there are over 9 million examples. Umbrico says that “the title itself has become a comment on the ever-increasing use of web-based photo-communities, and a reflection on the ubiquity of pre-scripted collective content there.” [16]

The continuing production and circulation of sunsets may seem to suggest a brainless, sheep-like adherence to popular image templates, and yet, for all photography’s reproducibility, each photograph is always unique to the photographer; they were individually moved to record it. Each of the sunsets that I have discussed in this essay could also be described as, in their own way, ambitious, for each is either submitted for competition or for public appraisal; they represent something significant that endures, and is shared, for a reason that repetition cannot dampen. As an amateur photo blogger, Paul Butzi, has put it so well:

the world is supped full with photos of children blowing out the candles on their birthday cakes. You know it. I know it. And yet, the world is not suffering from a surfeit of photographs of your child blowing out the candles on his birthday cake on his third birthday. [17]

Patterns exist because they show what matters to people. The ‘evidence’ of numerous photographs of sunsets as a popular subject, then - whether in the historical archive or in contemporary online photo-sharing sites - cannot be simply grouped as one-of-a-kind and thus be adequately dealt with quantitatively, whether there are fifty-five thousand, nine million or sixty billion. It might be more fruitful to consider these thematic photographs as forms of antanaclasis – a rhetorical linguistic form that has been linked to photography by Victor Burgin - signalling “repetition with different significations, or one repeated picture with different captions” [18] Sunset photographs may all look the same, but the meaning changes with each one. As Richard Dyer has argued about stereotypes: they “are a very simple, striking, easily-grasped form of representation but are none the less capable of condensing a great deal of complex information and a host of connotations". [19] Even stereotypes and clichés carry complexities and nuances. Just like sunsets, then, every sunset photograph is different. 

Footnotes

  1. Susan Sontag, On Photography, London, 1979, 85. back
  2. Sontag, On Photography, 28. back
  3. Julian Stallabrass, Gargantua: Manufactured Mass Culture, London, 1996. back
  4. Robert Castell and Dominique Schnapper, ‘Aesthetic Ambitions and Social Aspirations: The Camera Club as a Secondary Group’, Pierre Bourdieu, Luc Boltanski, Robert Castel, Jean-Claude Chamboredon & Dominique Schnapper, eds, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, Cambridge, 1990, 108. back
  5. Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime, Innsbruck, 1908. back
  6. [6]John Cooper Powys, The Meaning of Culture, London, 1930, 176.

  7. Pierre Bourdieu, ‘Introduction’, Pierre Bourdieu, Luc Boltanski, Robert Castel, Jean-Claude Chamboredon & Dominique Schnapper, eds, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. Cambridge, 1990, 7. back
  8. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Cambridge, MA, 1984, 35. back
  9. Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, 39 back
  10. John Wade, Make Your Pictures Win. London, 1982, 77. back
  11. Search 88, One Day for Life: Photographs by the people of Britain, taken on a single day, London, 1987. back
  12. Pollen, Annebella, 'The Book the Nation is Waiting for! One Day for Life’, in Patrizia Di Bello, Colette Wilson & Shamoon Zamir, eds, The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond. London, 2012, 156. back
  13. Pollen, 'The Book the Nation is Waiting for!', 159. back
  14. Risto, Sarvas and David M. Frohlich, From Snapshots to Social Media: The Changing Picture of Domestic Photography, London, 2011. back
  15. Lynn Berger, ‘Snapshots, or: Visual Culture’s Cliches’, Photographies 4:2, September 2011, 184. back
  16. [16] http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/Suns/Suns_State.html [accessed 27 August 2012]

    [17] http://photomusings.wordpress.com/2008/07/06/cliche/ [accessed 28 August 2012]

  17. Victor Burgin, ed. Thinking Photography, Basingstoke, 1990. Mary Price, The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space, Stanford, CA, 1994, 12. back
  18. Richard Dyer, The Matter of Images, London, 1993, 12. back

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