Much of William Milberry’s photography is influenced by the Japanese aesthetic sense of wabisabi (侘寂).
Wabisabi is a guiding aesthetic that can be found across all areas of Japanese culture, art, design, and even in traditional performing arts. It’s marked by an appreciation and acceptance of imperfection and transience. Author Richard R. Powell says “Wabisabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” The origins of this line of thought can be traced back to Buddhism (a dominant religion in Japan), which stresses similar concepts. So it’s somewhat natural that people who live with a Buddhist world view would find objects that match these ideas as “beautiful.”
Common traits found in the wabisabi aesthetic are simplicity, modesty, and austerity. In terms of manifestation of wabisabi, you see a lot of asymmetry, roughness, and a lack of complex design or pre-planning. This aesthetic is applied by the Japanese to many things such as ceramics, paintings, photography, architecture, and even traditional music and theater.
As a westerner, I would say that many western aesthetics view things that are carefully designed, perfectly crafted or that have an eternal quality as “beautiful.” (Perhaps this is influenced by many monotheistic western cultures’ ideas about the eternity and perfection of God and heaven?) Wabisabi, on the other hand, embodies an appreciation for things despite their imperfections. Imperfections include wear acquired by time (like weathered wood or patina on metal), or artifacts leftover by the process that something was created by. Beyond just imperfection, in line with Buddhist thought, things that are transient and impermanent are also seen as especially beautiful. Expression of this focus on transience can be seen in arts like Japanese Ikebana (flower arranging), where the beautiful arrangement will be short lived due to the nature of flowers. Also a preference for transience can be seen in the choice of subject matter in art (short lived cherry blossoms, fleeting moments in life, etc.), and even key elements in stories and movies (particularly in period pieces such as samurai movies.)
The sake flask in the photo to the left is an example of wabisabi aesthetic. It’s one of my personal favorite items which I found at a flea market in Fukuoka. It is uneven and worn, yet still elegant and balanced. I see it and appreciate it’s creation and long history rather than feel put off by it’s sunken in sides and heavily worn, uneven glaze.
Not every uneven, crooked, or imperfect thing is admired under the idea of wabisabi. It must garner a sense of tranquility or almost spiritual thoughts. The “defects” as it were, are often quite intentional or allowed to be there as a testament to an objects creation or history. There is an art to imperfection. There is an intuitive understanding and something intangible communicated in a perfectly uneven teacup made by one of the respected ceramic artists of Arita, Japan, which, is probably not present in a crooked teacup made by someone who simply doesn’t know what they are doing. There is a deep sense of presence in dark, grainy photos taken by Moriyama Daido which probably isn’t present in a photo snapped by someone who doesn’t actually see the world in line with this aesthetic.
In what ways does wabsiabi relate to Japanese photography? At first glance the photos of many of the noted Japanese photographers like Moriyama Daido, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Shomei Tomatsu are not “beautiful” in the typical western sense I was used to. They are not carefully composed, don’t have pinpoint focus, and are often not well exposed. Their subjects seem to have little setup and are fleeting moments that would be impossible to go back and catch again. Contrast this is with noted western photographers like Ansel Adams or Annie Leibovitz whose works are carefully planned, composed, focused, and executed. While these may be arbitrary examples that illustrate my point, I think they do demonstrate the general preference for and pattern of wabisabi ideas in Japanese photography/art, and the preference for a “clean” more “carefully crafted” style of western photography/art.
When I lived in Japan I wanted to learn more about Japanese photographers. I would browse photobooks (of which there are many), in the local book stores. I was disappointed at first and thought that the Japanese had failed to master photography techniques. Still, I wanted to buy a few books for my collection, so I bought Moriyama Daido’s book Shinuku Plus. When I slowly looked through it, I slowly began to understand. The photos together told a story without words, they drew you into the time and place where they were taken. After feeling this for the first time I started to appreciate the individual images because I no longer focused on what they weren’t (clear, sharp, detailed), but I learned to focus on what they offered. I had discovered, at least in part, the aesthetic of wabisabi.
While I enjoy a well executed photo, I feel more free to look beyond the surface now. Japanese photographers often seem to look into their subjects and reflect what they feel more than focusing on capturing the subject to present to your eyes. It’s a very different way of appreciating the world.
I plan on writing more articles about Japanese culture and Japanese photography. It’s something that I have fallen in love with and think that English speakers have had limited exposure to.
Article by William Milberry.
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