Wabi Sabi and Photography
I am hesitant to write on this topic. The Wabi Sabi aesthetic-philosophy has been a topic of study and contemplation for me for over thirty years and forms the foundation of my personal philosophy. However, I must state, that I am not an expert on Japanese language, culture, or aesthetics. Writing on such a subject is risky and I do not want to contribute to western society’s bastardization of eastern philosophies and religions. I am willing to give it a try because I believe that photography’s fascination with all things Wabi Sabi warrants a deeper look and discussion and is worth the risk.
My fascination with things that show the signs of time and decay began as soon as I picked up a camera as a teenager. Withered leaves, rusted metal, and imperfections in common things, were all subjects for my camera. Most people I showed my photographs to, did not get it, or just had no interest in the subjects I was photographing. They could not understand why I wanted to photograph such things.
I felt discouraged, until I came across the work of Brett Weston and Arron Siskind. Suddenly, my vision felt validated. Here were two of the world’s greatest photographers and they frequently photographed the same subjects that I wanted to photograph. It was not just Brett and Arron that photographed these types of subjects, it seemed every photographer did, not necessarily to the extent that Brett and Arron did, but at least a few times throughout their careers. Even the mighty Ansel Adams, best known for his expansive landscapes that capture the classic beauty of nature, would occasionally point his camera at such subjects.
Brett Weston used to call the things he photographed “Elegant Crap.” Neither Brett, Arron nor most of the photographers of that era every mentioned being influenced by eastern philosophy, Brett was especially resistant to talking about photography, preferring to let his work “speak for itself.” Minor White was one of the few photographers that showed any interest in eastern philosophy, but he never explored the Wabi-Sabi concept, at least not in any of his writings that I am aware of.
My discovery of Wabi Sabi came from my study of Buddhism, pottery and the fantastic little book titled: Wabi Sabi for Artist, Designers, Poets and Philosophers by Leonard Koan. This book made a huge impact on me and still does.
What exactly is Wabi Sabi?
Here is the tough part. First off, we must recognize the fact that the Japanese language is vastly different than English and direct translations, especially on such topics as poetry, philosophy, and aesthetics, are nearly impossible. Even harder is to try and translate something that many Japanese have trouble explaining themselves, in their own language. Some concepts are simply beyond words and Wabi Sabi is one such concept.
For most westerners who have explored Wabi Sabi, their interest, or understanding, begins and ends with its aesthetic attributes. Wabi Sabi is commonly associated with things that in in English we call rustic. Wabi Sabi appreciates the beauty in things that show the effects of time, like patina, rust and decay. Wabi Sabi accepts randomness and the uncontrollable. A pot that comes out of the kiln a bit crooked or warped is preferred over a flawless one. A chip, a crack or a scrape is embraced and ultimately these imperfections, damages, or mistakes, become the most cherished part of an object.
Wabi Sabi is the natural process of life. Examples are everywhere we look, from melting glaciers to peeling paint. I find that the most dramatic and potent subjects are man made objects that are succumbing to weather and time. We like to think that the things we humans create are eternal, but all things, will eventually come to an end.
Photography is not Wabi Sabi
Digital photography can never be Wabi Sabi. Art that has Wabi Sabi characteristics are created with organic materials and must be able to be touched, held in our hands. Digital photography does not exist in the material world. Sure, we can make a print, but a digital print is technically perfect and lacks any Wabi Sabi characteristics.
Some of photography’s traditional processes can have some Wabi Sabi characteristics. Old tintypes for example, often show unintentional stains and light leaks. The metal can be warped and rough. These are things that the photographer has no control of, which is a defining attribute of Wabi Sabi.
The biggest mistake that any artist, not just photographers, can make, is to fake Wabi Sabi. What we must remember is that Wabi Sabi just is. It is not and cannot be created, it just exists, it just happens. Interior designers and decorators are obsessed with creating the rustic, patina look. They try to fake Wabi Sabi. I have items in my house I have purposely aged, burnt and “roughed up.” But they are not Wabi Sabi.
Creating textures and flaws in photoshop, is not Wabi Sabi. Using textured photo papers, with rough edges, is not Wabi Sabi. Purposely blurring images and adding grain, is not Wabi Sabi. I am not saying there is anything wrong with doing these things, they are just not Wabi Sabi.
Photography and Wabi Sabi Philosophy
So, if photography cannot be Wabi Sabi, then what is photography’s relationship with Wabi Sabi? What photography can do, that almost no other artistic medium can (except maybe filmmaking) is capture and share things that are Wabi Sabi.
Wabi Sabi is more than a design aesthetic. It is a philosophy. It is understanding and accepting that all things are impermanent, that all things are imperfect and that all things are incomplete. Wabi Sabi is the acceptance of the uncontrollable nature of life. It is the acceptance of the fact that all things age, decay and ultimately, come to an end.
Human’s have contemplated and mused over with these concepts for our entire existence. We have created myths, stories, religions, and philosophies to help us to accept, or more often, ignore these undeniable truths. I believe photographers are drawn to such subjects (either consciously or subconsciously) because we find them both fascinating and frightening. Wabi Sabi subjects remind us of our own mortality.
I have used photography to observe and study Wabi Sabi. I like to think of myself as a thief. There is a guilty pleasure when I use the camera to steal a moment from the inescapable. Even though I am fully aware that the photograph, the subject of the photograph and myself, the photographer, will eventually return to nothingness.
The photographic process may not be Wabi Sabi, but we can use photography as a method of study. No matter what your beliefs are, there are lessons in the Wabi Sabi philosophy that we can all benefit from. The camera is an excellent tool for observing nature and for contemplating ideas without the need for words, which are not always necessary for understanding.