WABI SABI Photography - Celebrating Impermanence through Imagery
Introduction When walking through a forest or wood, have you ever stopped, sat, and really immersed yourself in your surroundings? Or sat and watched the ocean as it meets the shoreline?
When you are in a landscape, whether there to take photographs or not, have you ever stopped and watched the constant interplay of light and shadow with the countryside. Have you ever thought about how that landscape has changed across the years as walls, roads, buildings, pylons, or even animals have been added or taken away?
All of the scenarios mentioned can show us the true nature of the world within which we live. In the forest we are surrounded by death and decay as well as life and growth; the waves, as they crash or lap at the shoreline, are ever changing and constantly moving; and the light on the landscape alters the mood and feel of what we are looking at.
Each of these are vivid illustrations of the combined elements of impermanence, transition, flux and imperfection; all of which appear to go against much of what we have been taught or led to believe in and expect.
This is Wabi-Sabi, a Japanese aesthetic and philosophy that has entered into a lot of Western art and thought over the years, especially as we start to realise that things are different to how we expect or often want them to be.
I have been interested in this notion for a while now, probably generated from my long held interest in Eastern philosophy and spirituality. Also, as I get older, I find myself both at odds with the seeming relentless search for perfection and order in the world and trying to accept and reconcile myself with my own transient body and being. As my mind has wandered during the various lockdowns, we have all been through, I have been trying to bring together this notion with my love for photography - is there a connection?
In 2009, Marcel Theroux presented "In Search of Wabi-Sabi" on BBC Four, as part of the channel's Hidden Japan season of programming, travelling throughout Japan trying to understand the aesthetic tastes of its people. Theroux began by asking members of the public on a street in Tokyo to describe Wabi-Sabi - the results of which showed that even the Japanese are likely to give you a polite shrug and explain that Wabi-Sabi is simply unexplainable!
Whilst this setback provides a bit of a problem the rest of this article really depends upon having something against which I can explore how photography might be used effectively to represent the concept.
At its essence Wabi-Sabi can be framed as the Japanese art of impermanence. It comes from a traditional aesthetic sensibility and philosophy that is based upon an appreciation of the transient beauty of the physical world. It seeks to find beauty in the imperfections that are found in the truth of all things and that are caused by the constant and natural state of flux where everything evolves from nothing and eventually devolves back to nothing.
As a concept it marries art and philosophy and as such has inspired much of Japanese arts over the years, from the team ceremony, through flower arranging, haiku poems, and garden design. It suggests qualities such as impermanence, humility, asymmetry, and imperfection thus presenting an opposing standpoint to the Western values of permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection.
Leonard Koren (“Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers”) suggests that the closest English word to Wabi-Sabi is probably “rustic”. Defined as “simple, artless, or unsophisticated” Koren goes on the say that this represents only a very limited of the whole aesthetic. He provides the following definitions of the two words:
Wabi – the misery of living alone in nature, away from society and suggesting a discouraged, dispirited emotional state
Sabi – originally meant “chill”, “lean,” or “withered.”
From these, seemingly downbeat, terms the concept has passed through many definitions and translations thus living the very transience it promotes. Much like Marcel Theroux’s discovery that, even in Japan, people find it hard to articulate and define, each writer on the subject (and there are many) arrive at definitions that suit their purposes. The following is an interpretation (as he calls it) of the term by designer and interpreter, Andrew Juniper (“Wabi-Sabi The Japanese Art of Impermanence”):
“Wabi-Sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understanded beauty that exists in the modesty, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of things.”
There are three main precepts that underpin and truly help to define Wabi-Sabi:
NOTHING LASTS NOTHING IS FINISHED NOTHING IS PERFECT
These are defined a little later in this article.
Wabi-Sabi is rooted in Zen Buddhism, and Zen’s antecedent was Taoism. Taoists try to live in harmony with nature, and it was by studying the natural flows of life that they can become one with the Tao, a mystical force that guides all lives and that never remains still.
The actual roots of Wabi-Sabi are somewhat lost in the mists of time, possibly back as far as the Song dynasty in Japan (960-1279 CE). Certainly, it was in the Tea Ceremony that the art and philosophy of Wabi-Sabi has its firm foundations. Moving from China to Japan the ceremony started to become formalised with rules and etiquette starting to be observed between 1185 and 1333 CE and it was the Zen monk Ikkyu (1394-1481 CE) who was pivotable in the development both of Zen and the Tea Ceremony. Ikkyu moved the ceremony, which by then had started to become ostentatious, towards being a spiritual communion of two or more people, using the ritual to meditate on the beauty and transience of life. Later on, we find that Ikkyu’s teachings have been transmitted down to Sen no Rikyu (1522 – 1591 CE); he redefined the tea ceremony in all its aspects: the rules of procedure, the utensils, architecture and even the landscaping of the tea garden. He had an eye for aesthetic balance and a desire for the simple and unadorned and, firmly established the concepts of wabi (deliberate simplicity in daily living) and sabi (appreciation of the old and faded) as its aesthetic ideals. During his time the teahouse became smaller (to a 2-mat room—i.e., 6 feet square) and more secluded with the introduction of the small door. The tea bowls produced under his direction were characterized by a rustic simplicity. After Rikyu’s death (through ritual suicide at the age of 70) the tea ceremony itself has splintered into different forms and factions, each trying to establish a legitimacy based upon supposed direct links to Rikyu’s teachings. About 100 years after his death the “art” of tea changed into the “way” of tea and in the course of this Wabi-Sabi was reduced, simplified, and packaged into a definite set of rules and sayings (almost the opposite of its core philosophy). However, the resurgence of Zen Buddhism and especially its transference to the West in the 1920s, brought with it new understand and a stripping back of much of the ceremony to regain its place as a aesthetic ideal.b
After Rikyu’s death (through ritual suicide at the age of 70) the tea ceremony itself has splintered into different forms and factions, each trying to establish a legitimacy based upon supposed direct links to Rikyu’s teachings. About 100 years after his death the “art” of tea changed into the “way” of tea and in the course of this Wabi-Sabi was reduced, simplified, and packaged into a definite set of rules and sayings (almost the opposite of its core philosophy). However, the resurgence of Zen Buddhism and especially its transference to the West in the 1920s, brought with it new understand and a stripping back of much of the ceremony to regain its place as an aesthetic ideal.
Wabi Sabi Values
As previously mentioned, there are three main values or precepts that are contained within the wisdom of Wabi-Sabi. Nothing Lasts. There is a universal inclination towards nothingness, an inclination that is unrelenting. Even those things that appear to be solid and permanent present nothing more than an illusion of being so. No matter how much we want to ignore the fact everything will, and does, come to nothing in the end. Nothing is Finished. Everything is in a constant never ending state of becoming or dissolving. We might try and point to moments along the way and try and define them as “complete” or “finished” but, in reality we are just kidding ourselves in our desire for wholeness and control. There is no concept of conclusion in Wabi-Sabi. Nothing is Perfect. There is nothing in existence that does not have imperfections. We may need to look really closely to see the flaws, but they are always there.
These values come from close observation of and alignment with nature. Koren (1994) says that: “Wabi-Sabi is not found in nature at moments of bloom and lushness, but at moments of inception or subsiding. Wabi-Sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, or bold landscapes. Wabi-Sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes.”
What does have to be said in addition here, is the caveat that Wabi-Sabi is NOT an excuse for shoddiness and poor or sloppy work. Such an idea would absolutely horrify the ancient Japanese craftsmen and goes totally against all Zen teachings. Comparison with the Present Day
Across the past 100 years or so the world, especially in the West, has seemingly become obsessed with perfection, and logic – machine thinking, science over nature and a collective egocentric society. A society that tries desperately to ignore death and decay, where we push the elderly into ‘care’ homes and out of sight and mind, where we want our history sanitised and set in some form of aspic, seemingly so that it looks the same as our perceptions. TV programmes show people seeking their “forever home”, adverts displaying “forever furniture” and ignoring that, when broken, tatty or out of fashion we will throw it away and buy new.
The following lists, adapted from Koren (1994) shows the difference between modern culture and Wabi-Sabi Modern Times
Logical & rational
Looks for universal solutions
Mass produced and modular
Has faith in ‘progress’
Believes in the control of nature
Needs to be well maintained
Purity makes things richer and valued
Seeks to reduce sensory information
Rationality over emotion
Intolerant of ambiguity and contradiction
Tries to be everlasting
Looks for the personal & idiosyncratic
One of a kind and variable
There is NO progress
Believes in the fundamental uncontrollability of nature
Accommodates degradation and attrition
Corrosion and contamination make its expression richer
Seeks to expand sensory information
Is comfortable with ambiguity and contradiction
To everything there is a season
Wabi-Sabi & Photography
Wabi-Sabi as an aesthetic has spread its influence far beyond the humble Tea Ceremony or Japanese pottery; as mentioned it now emerges within all forms of art and design, including photography. In doing so, and oftentimes in ways that are unbeknownst to the photographer, it is influencing how many of us both view and make images. It appears to me that photography, as an art form, tends to split into two differing factions amateur and professional with the latter allowing themselves the freedom to ‘break the rules’ in ways that are often frowned upon within amateur focused organisations. And here I am talking primarily about Camera Clubs and the local and national bodies that try and control such organisations. Of course, all art is subjective, we all have different tastes whether we prefer painting to photography or sculpture, for example, and even within photography some people will prefer Landscape to Nature or Portraits, whether from a viewer or author perspective.
The history of photography is one of experimentation and variance, however it was rarely taken ‘seriously’ by the fine art bodies and museums who favoured painting and sculpture over this new fangled art form. As John Szarkowski (1966/2007) says in his introduction to the seminal “The Photographer’s Eye” – “The difference was a basic one. Paintings were made – constructed from a storehouse of traditional schemes and skills and attitudes – but photographs, as the man on the street put it, were taken.” Szarkowski then went on to do his utmost to start to get photographic images accepted alongside painting and other forms of fine art by offering five elements that can be used to start to understand photographs: The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time, and The Vantage Point. These five elements appear to have been dissected over the years into sets of rules that should apparently, dictate what makes a good or bad photograph. For example, there is a checklist available for Camera Club judges that has 72 different negative elements listed – admittedly it does not actually mention any grading system as to how many ticks equals what score. What is interesting to me is that emotion, mood, or story are not mentioned at all in this list. The concept of Wabi-Sabi is increasing within photography in, I think, two major and positive ways. However, there is a corollary, in that some people have taken the concept as a reason for producing poor images! In researching the subject, I have found, much to my horror, websites where individuals are claiming that out of focus images with poor technique etc are Wabi-Sabi.
To my mind I think that Wabi-Sabi photography can be categorised into two groups, images of things that could be said to have, or represent, Wabi-Sabi; and images that, themselves have the aesthetic, especially in relation to the digital and binary sharpness or many images today.
Images of Wabi-Sabi
So, in my two type classification system images that fall into this category are those images that depict subjects that themselves express the elements of Wabi-Sabi, impermanence, incompleteness, and imperfection. These include images of rust or peeling paint, the waves on a beach, dead and fading flowers, or a footprint in the sand.
Photographers such as Michael Kenna, Paul Sanders, Rachael Talibart, Paul Kenny, John Daido Lori, Edward Weston, Robert Frank, and others who, in my estimation are photographers who, through much of their work, express this aesthetic.
My second category contains images that are, in themselves representational of Wabi-Sabi even though they are modern day work.Here I would include images made using Intentional Camera Movement, some elements of abstract photography, such as from Doug Chinnery or Valda Bailey. Also, images that have been captured using film as opposed to digital.Film offers a softness that is missing from digital images and thus evokes a past age and feel.
The following list is by no means exclusive or exhaustive, these are purely books that I have read that either talk about this concept or are photography books that I think illustrate the point.
Gross, P, L. and Shapiro, S, I. (2001) The Tao of Photography Ten Speed Press, Berkley, California, USA
Koren, L. (1994) Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Stone Bridge Press, Berkley, California, USA
Koren, L. (2015) Wabi-Sabi Further Thoughts Imperfect Publishing, Point Reyes, California, USA
Juniper, A. (2003) Wabi-Sabi The Japanese Art of Impermanence. Tuttle Publishing, Tokyo, Japan
Molin, S. (2020) Wabi-Sabi. The Full Manual for Understanding the Japanese Art and Culture of Wabi-Sabi. Amazon, UK
Mori, A. (2019) Wabi-Sabi. Accepting Imperfection and Taking Pleasure in the Transient Nature of Earthly Things.Amazon, UK
Takahashi. S. (2020) Wabi-Sabi Amazon, UK