life . Portrait . street

Madison, WI


Fontana Giusti

How to photograph the iconic AND NOT FALL INTO the cliché


Before I write anything more, let me say that there’s an irony to calling a photograph cliché. The word, in French, actually does mean photograph, in certain circumstances, so in a way all photographs are clichés, and if you think about it, they really are.

We use tropes, we use common elements of language, a visual language for photographers, to make a point, to organise the chaos we find in the world, this overwhelming cacophony of life around us, into beauty or a story, something that makes sense, that can be told, repeated, communicated. Clichés, those over-repeated images, these memes we’re compelled to make and share at nauseam, are inevitable, and when something great gets made or said, it will get remade, or said again, and again, and again, and again. They are the rules of composition we live by, they are the scenes we’re drawn to or the landscapes and landmarks we consider worthy of our attention. There’s no escape.

That being said, I can be a little more subtle and define the cliché as the obvious shot. However, let’s also recognise that an obvious shot became obvious when one day someone found it. I often think of Ansel Adams as the father of the American Landscape clichés – unpopular opinion, I know, but know that I also think that takes nothing away from his mastery. But if you push it a little further the same can be said of all genre-defining photographers (yes, I’m looking at you, Saul Leiter…).

Everyone does them. Everyone. And that’s because, as I said, there’s no escaping them.

And there’s also countless articles out there already examining photographic clichés and how to avoid them. There’s lists, trust me I’ve looked, but I think the list approach misses the main point – other than just ending up being a list of things that irk the author of the article (did anyone say “pet peeves”?).

As someone who’s notoriously got a compulsive trigger-happy photographic practice, I believe I’m guilty of the clichés you can find on the regular and I’m OK with that, because these images, even if I never look at them again, they have a point, they serve a purpose, and they belong in my exploration of subjects and points of view. How will I ever find anything new if I refuse to practice, to indulge, and to realise I’m indulging in tropes and clichés? 

No, the point I’m making here is about creativity.

Clichés irk us because they’re lazy, they’re shortcuts, they lack in originality, like postcards you could buy for a dollar without going through all the trouble of making a poor replica with other tourists crowding your shot… Originality is the real issue here.


Not that I always know what I’m doing, but I have a few tips 😏

1. find a different focal point than expected

See what I did in the two images above? I could have captured the Chicago Skyline as seen from the north in that beautiful end of day glowy light and called it a day. I could have simply taken a picture of Vidigal from above and called it a day (actually I took a few of those, because I was exploring the landscape). BUT, instead, I found another focal point, something that makes the landscape visually interesting, in both cases it’s a red element, but that’s just sheer coincidence – though now that I write it, is it? Maybe the color is what got my attention in both cases…

2. Welcome the accident, use it

I swear, when I took that image in the bus in Chicago, I had no idea the little girl was going to point with her finger, and I might have actually been unhappy about it when it happened. And that burn on the first of the roll, I didn’t know it would turn out this way, but these images are so much more interesting because of these accidents.

And what about the eye contact below here. That just happened, and I found myself like a little girl caught red handed doing something not everyone approves of, I just wanted to capture the color palette, but that look, it’s so intense, it’s actually telling a story.

3. provoke the accident

And this finally brings me to the most important point I want to make. If you want to make an image that’s different, but your subject is iconic, I think the only way to do so is to experiment wildly, and force originality and creativity into the image by doing things to it that some people might find offensive, namely:

  • plastic cameras
  • film soup
  • light leaks
  • multiple exposures
  • cross processing
  • exposing both sides of the film
  • motion blur and intentional camera movement
  • using experimental films
  • freelensing
  • all of the above
  • etc. you draw the line
That allows you to just go for all the clichés and kill them. Like down here, I smashed two of the most photographed Chicago subjects (skyline + landmark, I mean…) into one image, exposing both sides of a roll of Lomochrome Turquoise in a point and shoot, and the result is explosive, nothing you’ve ever seen before, and I will never apologise for it.

Or how about my irreverent treatment of the Redeeming Christ? I challenge you to find anything like these in a souvenir stand, and yet, they feel familiar because I still toyed around with concepts and clichés – do you see?

Why not use your half-frame camera to explore the obvious, low hanging fruit, it will cost you less, and you might end up with something like this…

And while you’re at it, throw in an emotional element that will add the element of connection that’s all yours. 

Like here: a waterfall, can’t be more cliché than that, but a waterfall with my twin sister as its nymph, and that first of the roll burn – I’ll treasure it forever!


Cringe who may, there’s nothing wrong with documenting your life, making memories, and learning skills along the way.

Do you like my approach to photography, and its results? If you do (and I certainly hope you do, though if you don’t that’s also fine), you should check out my print shop, it’s got the good stuff, and when you make a purchase, you make me (and my family) happy!

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