Wabi-Sabi and Digital Photography
MAKING SPACE FOR IMPERFECTION
The day I fell in love with photography, I was walking my dog, Charlie, across open countryside a few miles from my home. It was a sunny June morning when we set out. There were wildflowers everywhere, a summery chaos of pinks, golds, blues and purples.
Then a storm rolled in off the Atlantic. The sky darkened quickly, the wind grew fierce and soon rain would sheet in. I decided to turn back.
I thought I’d take one more shot of Charlie before the rain arrived.
As I raised my camera, the wind battered me, the first raindrops stung my skin, and I accidentally pressed the shutter button before I’d lined up the shot. Oh well. I stowed the camera, and we hurried home through the storm.
Later I uploaded my photos — the usual snapshot visual record of our walk. Nice memories, very ordinary images.
I came to the last shot I’d taken, that fumbled, misfired shot. It was skewed and blurred, a shot of nothing in particular. I was about to delete it. But something made me stop. The wildflowers were a wind-thrashed blur of muted colours. One corner was grey sky, black cloud leaking across it like an ink stain. There were smudges and smears where the raindrops had spattered on the lens.
Nothing was ‘right’ about that photograph. Yet somehow it perfectly captured the experience of the moment when the storm slammed into us on a summer’s day.
That photo is long lost on some old hard drive, but I can still see it in my mind’s eye. Somehow it’s guided my photography ever since.
One day I stumbled across a Japanese concept that both describes this love of imperfection and gave it a gentle philosophical underpinning.
That concept is wabi-sabi.
WHAT IS WABI-SABI?
“Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.” — Leonard Koren, Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers
Wabi-sabi isn’t quite an aesthetic and it isn’t quite a philosophy. It’s somewhere between the two, a way of seeing, understanding and appreciating the value and beauty of flawed objects.
The term originates from two separate words:
wabi, meaning the loneliness and desolation of living in nature and apart from society
sabi, meaning chill, lean, withered, decaying.
In the 14th Century, these two words came together and their negative, melancholy associations started to change. A life in nature came to be prized as an alternative to the artifice of urban Japanese society. Old, worn, simple, functional objects were admired for their authenticity and honesty.
Over the centuries that followed, wabi-sabi came to mean an appreciation of objects that are rustic, weathered by age and use, flawed, transient, utilitarian, humble.
In the wabi-sabi style of Japanese pottery, the potter stops when the pot has become a functional object. It may be wonky, its rim uneven, its glaze patchy, but it is complete. If it cracks during the firing process, or any time afterwards, it will be repaired without the repair being hidden.
Both the crack and the repair are part of the pot’s history, its honesty, its wabi-sabi-ness.
Wabi-sabi is not about shoddy workmanship.
Often, it’s about knowing when to stop.
To put it another way, wabi-sabi is about leaving space for imperfection, and the aesthetic and spiritual appreciation of imperfection as part of the history and essence of an object, of our humanity, and of life.
WABI-SABI AND PHOTOGRAPHY
“Wabi-sabi is the antithesis of the Classical Western idea of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and/or monumental. In other words, wabi-sabi is the exact opposite of what slick, seamless, massively marketed objects, like the latest handheld wireless digital devices, aesthetically represent.” — Leonard Koren, The Beauty of Wabi Sabi
It’s easy to see how a wabi-sabi sensibility comes into play when you’re using primitive vintage film cameras, pinhole cameras, plastic ‘toy’ cameras, or alternative processes such as sun prints or cyanotypes. All of these leave lots of space for surprises and imperfections.
Digital cameras are different. They’re all about the pursuit of perfection and control so you have to work a bit harder to open up space for surprises and imperfections.
Maybe you’re wondering why you’d bother seeking imperfections in your photography. It’s up to you, of course, but there are lots of reasons why it’s worthwhile.
- learning new techniques and ways of thinking that will enhance and evolve your photographic style
- liberating your creativity
- challenging yourself
- the fun of experimenting
- shifting your perspective so that emotion, atmosphere, mood, the experience of a moment, or finding the unexpected, take priority over perfection
- because seeking out different kinds of beauty adds to the sum total of beauty in your life. What’s not to love about that?
6 WAYS TO WABI-SABI YOUR DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY
1. INTENTIONAL CAMERA MOVEMENT (ICM)
For this, you need slow shutter speeds (1–5 seconds is good) so stack Neutral Density (ND) filters and polarising filters on your lens, drop the ISO to 100 and use a narrow aperture. As you take the shot, create motion by panning, tilting, rocking, a controlled swing, a ‘tick’ movement, circling the camera, zooming in or out.
Check out: Doug Chinnery, Valda Bailey, Andrew S. Gray
2. MULTIPLE EXPOSURES
Some DSLRs will allow you to superimpose two or more exposures in-camera, or you can do it at the processing stage using editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop. This technique offers infinite scope for experimenting with combinations of form, texture, lighting, colour, symbolism, whatever you want.
Check out: Frank Grisdale, Chris Friel, Christoffer Relander
3. LONG EXPOSURES
As with ICM photography, you’ll need ND filters for this unless you’re shooting at night. You’ll also need a tripod, a remote shutter release (or use the in-camera timer).
Check out: Beth Moon, Darren Moore, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Alexi Titarenko
4. DIY FILTERS
Make your own filters from ordinary household stuff such as stockings, a prism, a magnifying glass, vaseline (pull clingfilm taut over your lens and smear the vaseline on to the clingfilm — don’t put the vaseline directly on your lens!), squares of cellophane, the bottoms of plastic water bottles.
Check out: Susan Burnstine
5. BLIND CAMERA SHOOTING
Lengthen your camera strap so the camera dangles at hip height. Hold the camera steady with one hand and, without ever lifting it or looking through the viewfinder, fire off shots as you walk around somewhere interesting.
Nb: this can be a form of covert photography so don’t do it around people or you could end up in trouble. Choose locations where no one is nearby and think in terms of nature, buildings, vehicles, animals, anything but people.
6. UPSET YOUR CAMERA SETTINGS
Turn off noise reduction and experiment with high ISO settings to create grainy images. Change the White Balance for cooler or warmer tones. Over-expose or under-expose shots. Play around with in-camera picture style settings such as Contrast or Saturation.
Check out: Chris Friel
WHAT TO EXPECT
Experimentation and practice will improve your success rate with most of these techniques but you’ll probably still end up with a lot of unusable photographs destined for your Trash bin. Doug Chinnery reckons to take around 600 ICM shots per session to get just a few he considers worth keeping and working on. Be prepared for this.
But … some shots will give you the raw material to create something magical, beautiful, and unique — an imperfectly perfect wabi-sabi image.