Let me try to connect the work of Japanese Photographers from the 1950’s and 60’s to their aesthetic heritage and contrast their work from everything western tradition teaches us about photography and the ever elusive, perfect, prize winning shot. If this blog makes you go out and experiment by giving up some of the control over the photographic process, then it achieved its objective. If it makes you appreciate the flaws in photography even better.
I was raised within a photographic tradition which exposed me to colorful images in National Geographic magazines, airbrushed advertisements and calendars displaying flawless landscapes by Ansel Adams. Twenty years later I had my first encounter with Daido Moriyama’s work. The grainy, high contrast image of a stray dog immediately resonated with me because of its immediacy how conveys a sense of abandonment and toughness. Other images took a little longer but Moriyama’s consistent style and handwriting was like a seed planted in my visual memory. He had me wondering, what made him and his contemporaries choose their style? Aside from the immediate historical context, which was Daido endlessly strolling through the modern mega city that Tokyo was quickly becoming, documenting the evolving urban environment, he was not the first one to document such change. But why the style and what was the influence of his historical artistic heritage?
Daido’s and his compatriots stylistic characteristics are easily listed: Motion blur, out of focus, high contrast, grain. But leaving it at that would be insufficient. Daido’s shots seemed random and accidental, never posed, the highlights where often deliberately exaggerated in an obvious and almost brutish fashion to isolate a key element, the perspectives were weird, obviously the images were shot from the hip with no pre-visualization, the subjects incomplete, distorted. Tomatsu’s image from Skin of a Nation as an example on the left gives some evidence of these stylistic elements.
Wabi Sabi excursion
When reading a about Wabi Sabi I came across Koren’s text on the subject. What struck me was that his text, like others is an attempt to analyze, disect and derive the criteria that define Wabi Sabi. He appeared to provide the function, the algorithm or recipe that produces Wabi Sabi artifacts. But Wabi Sabi and photography, do they rhyme? Certainly I can take pictures of Japanese vases, landscapes, flowers or other objects that are somehow imperfect, in decay, organic and whatever else criteria we think define Wabi Sabi. But it this misses a basic point: Taking a photo of something that has Wabi Sabi is one thing. Having the photo actually be an artifact which is perceived to have Wabi Sabi qualities is quite a different one. Wabi Sabi artifacts are unique, every imperfection gives it uniqueness, the organic shapes deviate from geometrical standards like square, circle, oval, straight line etc. In contrast to this, photography is synonymous with mass reproduction. Lens, film or sensor, f-stop, timer, iso, white balance, filters, studio lightening, composition rules, color contrasts all these elements are designed and used to control the outcome and make photography a craft capable of reproducing results. Like so many western artistic efforts the photography I had come to know aims for perfection in its desire to create something that would live on forever. But Wabi Sabi is born out of Zen, it is momentary, its organic, it has accidental character that is not planned for, it defies control and most importantly it is the viewers ability to appreciate these aspects.
Returning to Daido, Shomei and their contemporaneous Japanese photographers many of their aesthetics began to make sense when viewed as coming out of this Wabi Sabi tradition. The lights, angles, postures, moments are accidental, the grain dissolves clear edges denying clear lines, the high contrast eliminates detail and reduces to the essential, motion blur gives scenes a feeling of transience. Clearly photographers like Moriyama gave up control over the individual photographic process and allowed the image to become an experiment. Instead chemistry, the light, the moment decided the outcome. The results is often a grungy, moody images whose mood heavily relies on its imperfections.
To be sure images like the ones above might not be considered Wabi Sabi, I cannot claim to know, but it seems to me that this is what happens when old aesthetic principles live on in modernity, when the genre moves from countryside to the city, when neon lights replace twilight but the aesthetic aspects of Wabi Sabi live on. Beyond this grain, high contrast and resulting loss of detail render shapes more abstract, in particular faces loose their individuality, people become anonymous, which seems perfectly appropriate in a city where everyone is a stranger to each other.
To conclude here are some examples of my own making: