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Wabi-Sabi: Accepting The Imperfections (In Photography)

John Duder is back taking an almost philosophical look at photography as he takes the Japanese term 'Wabi-sabi' and applies it to his photography process.

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Definitions

I’m indebted to Rachael Talibart’s article Precious Imperfection in the September 2018 edition of Outdoor Photography for an insight into Wabi-Sabi, and for definitions. To see Rachael’s work, or to book a place on one of her courses, see her website.

However, I want to use her article in Outdoor Photography as inspiration for some thoughts of my own on taking, processing and fiddling with things in pictures.

Wabi is to do with living alone in nature, a sort of rustic purity, while Sabi relates to a state of worn-ness or flawed beauty.

Japanese concepts and words are difficult for Westerners, I think: they’re at a tangent to how we usually do things these days. Think of the way that ‘bokeh’ (the quality of the out-of-focus image) has become another way of saying ‘shallow depth of field’ - the concepts are slippery and elastic, and don’t lend themselves to neat summaries. Both are quite alien to the British psyche: when I asked my wife to suggest something a little worn and with flawed beauty, she said ‘Me!’ - but refused to be photographed for this article…

 

My son took this shot of me with my first granddaughter a few days ago. Fortunately, Della’s beauty makes up for the imperfections of my thinning and greying hair…

 

Now let’s add another word, do. Not the Homer Simpson exclamation of frustration (though there’s a connection), but the careful mastery of a craft or art. And, for the moment, let’s forget art, whatever it is, and concentrate on the craft of using a camera – the intimate understanding and mastery of aperture, focal length, shutter speed and so on. The stuff that allows us, if we’re good enough, to look at a scene, see how we want to portray it, and select the technical settings without a second thought.

 

Craftsmanship

Wherever you are on the way to being a master craftswoman (or craftsman), it is a continuing journey – you get better at it, you find new wrinkles, but you never stop. It will be frustrating at times. It’s not 'plug and play': it’s hard training and practice.

That’s background, though, like keeping your balance on a bicycle without trainer wheels is background to winning the Tour de France. In one sense, it matters what camera, lens, settings you use. In another, they are irrelevant. Living with paradox is a useful skill, and requires a certain letting go of what you’ve spent most of your life learning.

 

The trainer wheels are off, but so are the rear spokes, and it’s not part of current culture to mend things like this child’s bicycle. Even if Mum wants to repair it, spare parts are unlikely to be available. A long way from Sabi – and from Wabi.

 

Back to wabi-sabi. Put together, the words amount to a rather Zen state of being ready to make a picture and accepting the imperfections that arise, despite your do. A Western statement might be ‘f/8. And be there.’

 

Procrastination

The do, the learning and practice, is still a problem for some people, even though the cost of taking 100 digital pictures is negligible. With film, you would be looking at significant cost, using three films that are not in any way reusable, and it would still be a stage you’d need to go through. After all, as Henri Cartier Bresson put it, your first 10,000 photographs are your worst. With film and processing at current prices, that’s approaching £500, which is a lot to spend on practicing something. Be glad you’ve gone digital!

Let’s think about some areas of excellence in Japanese culture: the patience of refining, heating, folding, hammering the steel and repeating, repeating, repeating that goes into the production of a Samurai sword. The practice that goes into calligraphy and painting, so that a few strokes can express action and emotion. And the way that martial arts require extremes of discipline, learning, practising until mind and body work together perfectly. In Japan, do is a way of life: striving to do things really well is part of the culture. Western society in the industrial age has done a lot to remove the skill from many jobs, and pride in work has often been collateral damage.

 

These pipes and ducts were installed with skill and an eye to permanence, long ago. Disconnected, buried, they still have a sort of beauty that’s outlasted their usefulness.

 

This is how we need to be with our cameras...

Enough about the do, though. There’s so much to think about with the wabi-sabi.

 

Immerse yourself

It’s deep in the English self-image that we love the country… The village green, cricket on a summer afternoon, a pint of bitter in the pub, a walk in the woods. Self-reliant and treading lightly on the Earth.

The reality is often rather different. We want to be connected, to be entertained, to drink exotic lager. And then we head for the gym rather than a healthy walk from home to work and back.

Wabi-sabi implies a more natural and easy relationship with nature and the world, a lack of hankering after different lenses and accessories, an acceptance of the imperfections that we face. A willingness to wrap the broken lens hood in black tape, rather than order a new one, perhaps.

 

Modern power generation in an agricultural area – but don’t think for a moment that the wind turbines spoil the landscape, a mile or two from where the M1 meets the M6.  

 

Camerawork

After the careful preparation, the work itself. Go out and find the pictures that you want to take, using the equipment that you have.

Our language is often quite predatory: we shoot pictures, or we take them. This can leave us short on empathy, out of tune with the subjects we’re photographing. Wabi-sabi requires that we are non-intrusive, that we are humble, and don’t dictate how the subject should look. We seek to understand, to find what the right way to make a portrait of our subject is. Instead of taking a colonial, exploitative approach to subjects, we’ll accept them as they are, allowing them to be imperfect while being kind.

 

Learn your craft… Do you know which way to move your control dials, and which button to press to alter the ISO setting? Nikon and Pentax lenses focus backwards compared with almost every other make. If you ever use manual focus, you need to know which way to turn! Note the little dot to the left of the index line – that’s the infrared focus mark. If you have an SLR converted to shoot IR, the conversion should include recalibrating the AF system. It’s not an issue with mirrorless.

 

Processing

Again, as with taking pictures, editing needs practice. However, it is really easy to practice: you just have to make sure that you keep an unedited backup copy of the original file. I save a backup of everything on a separate external hard drive, and I always alter the file name when I begin editing. Lightroom, they tell me, makes sure that your editing is non-destructive of the original.

You can, therefore, play endlessly, and always step back, or go right back to the starting point and begin again. And you need to balance the do and the wabi-sabi: striving after perfection when you reach the point of making the image worse with every change indicates a certain lack of craftsmanship, I reckon. A sense of proportion, knowing when to stop, is part of being really good at something. And also realising that sometimes (often?) less is more.

Islamic art always incorporates a deliberate defect, some sort of minor imperfection. Muslims believe that perfection is for Allah, and seeking to be like God is profoundly wrong. There’s a common thread of humility about one’s own abilities, at the same time as acknowledging and embracing one’s own skill.

 

Some modern architecture uses wood that will weather and change over the years. Here, the paradox is that while we allow things to change, we delay the decay…

 

Can you live with paradox?

 

Zen and the art of photography

I mentioned letting go earlier. I can pin down my own moment of revelation to a few weeks after buying my first Lensbaby optic, a Muse.

As you can see, it’s rather unconventional – there’s an f/2 lens, with an interesting lack of optical corrections, mounted on a bendy plastic tube. The current Spark model is fairly close in concept, though it has a fixed f/5.6 aperture. However, f/5.6 is a good choice for the Muse, too, using the magnetic Waterhouse stops that came with it.

You focus and move the limited area of sharpness around the frame by squeezing the mount – at rest, it’s somewhere beyond infinity focus.

Now, you can be very intellectual about using it, and think which way to bias the squeeze. I’ve found that this slows me down, and messes up the flow of shooting, and that it works far better to keep my left hand moving, shifting the focus, and letting my mind float through the changes. This was very disconcerting the first few times for someone who believes in geometry! These days, I welcome it as a holiday from logic, letting my fingers do the thinking.

 

Lensbaby Muse, attached to my old DSLR – it’s almost infinitely easier to use on a mirrorless camera – but it demands different thinking whatever you attach it to!

 

The current Lensbaby system involves a clever mount with one ring freeing or locking the tilt mechanism, and another ring controlling the focus. It’s altogether more logical – and far less instinctive. Nearly 18 months after getting a Composer mount, I still find it less natural than the Muse.

If this all seems deeply weird and unscientific, that’s because it is. All I can suggest is that you buy or borrow a Spark (or a Muse, if you can find one), and play. Relax. Enjoy yourself. And let your subconscious do the heavy lifting for a change. It’s perfect relaxation for a control freak.

 

 Amber Belle photographed with my Lensbaby Muse. I love the way this lens forces the photographer to rely on instinct instead of calculation.

 

The Wabi and the do are in knowing your camera and lens sufficiently well to trust to your instincts: the Sabi is in the uncorrected nature of the lens, and the high levels of unsharpness that you will get in many parts of the frame.

 

Fading away

I know that I’m not the only person who enjoys a good decaying building or a tree that has died and is slowly rotting away. We all love mossy stones, and there’s always beauty in decay.

 

Conclusions

So what do you need to do so that you can go out and be a camera ninja?

 

One writer in Amateur Photographer suggested that it’s not a proper Leica until it’s ‘brassed’ – collectors might disagree, but it’s a camera that’s meant to be used, and it will absorb much more than a few superficial scratches.

 

Practice with your camera. Shoot something every day, and explore the limits of its capabilities, and your own. Do this with subjects that don’t matter, so that when you’re faced with the shot of a lifetime, you know what to do, deep inside, and can concentrate on making the picture, not setting the camera.

Understand that good enough is good enough. ‘Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass... It's about learning to dance in the rain.’ And that means that if the only lens you have is the wrong focal length and won’t give a truly sharp image at any aperture, you should embrace the blur, learn to make things more beautiful by leaving out the details. Anyone who has photographed a woman who is sensitive about wrinkles, pores and facial hair should understand this perfectly, and that the way forward is not necessarily perfect resolution of detail!

 

The second shutter blind on my recently acquired Exakta Varex IIa. The rubberised cloth blind has perished and cracked, and there are small holes that let light through if I leave the shutter uncocked and the lens uncapped. But careful use allows the camera to take perfectly good images – maybe that’s Wabi-sabi in action in my photography. I’m going to get the camera serviced at some point…

 

Keep it simple. Allow your subject to speak for itself, and don’t overlay (or overlayer) it with too much art for art’s sake. You don’t have to work all the time, and doing a lot is not as good as doing the right thing.

 

Where’s the Wabi?

Back to the definitions: Wabi is about simplicity and living in nature. Don’t make it complicated, and just go with the flow and your feelings. A lot of the very best photographers enjoy going out with a simple camera and one lens so that instead of imposing their vision on the world they are able to respond to what the world shows them. The response can be rough and unvarnished, and often that means that it is – as they say, these days – authentic.

 

 The British don’t seem to be very good at repair and gentle decay. Great Barr Hall, former meeting place for the Lunar Society, is supported by scaffolding and surrounded with razor wire after repeated vandalism. Was it, is it, worth saving? Do we care?

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder has been an amateur photographer for fifty years, which surprises him, as he still reckons he’s 17. He’s welcomed the easing of restrictions and the chance it’s provided to go back to model photography, and he’s also been running occasional lighting workshops with Misuzu. He remains addicted to cameras, lenses, and film.

 

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Comments


dudler Plus
18 1.7k 1879 England
14 Oct 2021 8:41AM
Any thoughts, anyone?

I find the concepts slippery and elastic: and I am also sure that there is great wisdom in them...
chase Plus
16 2.2k 583 England
14 Oct 2021 4:02PM
Natural decay is beautiful, I much prefer to take images of rusty, old, unused and un-loved stuff, they have much more to tell, so many stories and so much history that I will never know about. Think about the wrinkles on an older persons' face...lines of life.
Everything is worth saving but making fit for use once again...gently, whatever it may be.
Authenticity cannot be made, it creates itself.

Nice article John and so worth a read, thank you.
JuBarney Plus
10 34 5 United Kingdom
14 Oct 2021 6:47PM
A really interesting blog John, and love the pic of your Grand daughter.
cooky Plus
17 6 5 United Kingdom
14 Oct 2021 8:49PM
Well I can't disagree with any of that John - excellent article and some lovely accompanying images. I think the yearning for perfection is at the root of so much that is wrong with our society and others. That word acceptance is rearing its head again but it goes hand in hand in living with respect and harmony for ourselves and our environments.

Your Della is heart stealer! Smile

Kath

BobinAus Plus
6 3 11 Australia
15 Oct 2021 4:56AM
You’ve raised more than a few challenging ideas in this interesting article John. The ‘slippery’ 'elastic' bit is melding the ‘do excellence’ with the wabi and the sabi in some overarching state of creative mind (or spirit) that can’t be clearly voiced even though we understand what it’s not. I’m pretty sure that the closest I’ll ever get to that elusive state is knowing that I don’t have it. Perhaps the pursuit is worthwhile and rewarding in itself, without ever the attainment of the higher goal? Or maybe I am reducing an ethos to a simple instrument of happiness or will? Bob
dudler Plus
18 1.7k 1879 England
15 Oct 2021 4:57AM
Exactly so, Kath.

There's a lot that's good about a can-do, let's-fix-it-now culture, but it goes along with a treading heavily approach. Care, thought, and a willingness to learn are necessary, whatever rampant capitalists think. Being an entrepreneur shouldn't make one a megalomaniac who wants to take over space as well as the world.wants and
dudler Plus
18 1.7k 1879 England
15 Oct 2021 4:28PM
Bob, I think that the journey is the important thing, and that anyone proclaiming that they have arrived has missed the point. Humility and understanding one’s own limitations are vastly important.

I’ve heard it said that if the maker proclaims it as art, it IS art. I think that the opposite is truer - the real artist follows a craft, and others may, perhaps feel it is art.
FredColon 1 1 United Kingdom
16 Oct 2021 9:31AM
An excellent article which is, for me, quite timely. You've caught and articulated the idea much more cogently than I could.

I've often spent time photographing things which have generated "what on earth are you taking pictures of THAT for?" responses; not everyone appreciates the value in old things, or the natural processes of decay -- whether it be plants going to seed [and don't get me wrong, I like photographing blooms in their full flush too], dead trees, old wooden buildings rotting, steel machinery rusting...

What I do know that I need to learn/practise more is reducing some clutter - the 'less is more' minimalism approach definitely adds to the pictures seen on this website (and others).

I say timely at the start of my reply, as the theme for this month at my local photography group is "beauty in decay". It's always interesting to see the work of others as inspiration.
dudler Plus
18 1.7k 1879 England
16 Oct 2021 2:40PM
Cheers, Andrew (or should I write 'Sarge'?) -

I wrote an article about decluttering a while back (it's HERE if you want a look), very much inspired by the pictures that whatriveristhis posts. Alan is an absolute master of simplifying images in processing, and his images always delight my eyes.

Good luck with the competition!

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