Dried flowers and shadows

One to review advisedly, added to the reading list to give my brain a little time to cool off from Racecraft, but also because a recent photo walk came to mind as I was standing in a shop downtown and caught a glimpse of a related book on the concept of Wabi-Sabi as it relates to writing.

So, what’s Wabi-Sabi?

I dunno. Try this:

“Wabi-Sabi is the aesthetics of modesty. The aesthetics of the transient and the final. Wabi-Sabi is an aesthetics, which does not turn away from nature but includes it. Wabi-Sabi also is the small, the ugly, the unnoticed. The plain, the simple. The broken, the perforated, the rusty. Wabi-Sabi is reduction, the admiration of the small, hidden things in life. All this is not just accepted but integrated consciously into the art-work.”

The reason I was reminded of that recent photo walk was not the final product of the walk, but the process of the walk. I have a tiny little “lenscap” lens. It’s 18mm wide (~28mm in 35mm terms), fixed-focus (not fixed focal length, which Google seems to think is the same as fixed focus), and fixed aperture (f8). It crushes shadows, blows out highlights, and has vignette that counts as “bad” if you think vignette is bad. When you shoot with it, you are thinking about composition and little else. In fact, when I take this lens out, I automate away the remaining “else”: I use my most generous auto ISO setting and count on IBIS to save me from whatever margin I haven’t accounted for.

Now, right away, I am already butting heads with this notion from the book:

“In the long run the pressure for flawless perfection will restrict us. Eventually we will not dare to do anything that differs from the norm. Is it not the slightly blurry picture of our child, with its laugh reminding us of a wonderful childhood that is a thousand times more valuable than a perfect arranged portrait? Since Wabi-Sabi does not expect perfection, we have freedom for our creativity and ourselves.”

… because when I take that little lens out and count on IBIS and auto ISO to blunt the difficulties a toy lens poses, I’m trying to keep a level of control and “cleanness” that feels like a violation of the notion, at least as much as I can understand it with a single reading of a single book. (A single book translated from German, with a few translation errors or odd choices in the mix.)

Anyhow, when I take that little lens out, I’m accepting a few things about it, controlling a few things more, but also appreciating that it is good for making pictures about things that are “broken, perforated and rusty.”

The book contains little exercises:

“Reduce your photographs. Try to let them take effect by reduction, not by overloading them with colors and forms. Maybe by not taking the complete scene but just a section? Or by creating a rather dark or monochrome picture? Or your blur your motive? Concentrate on only one element and try to intensify it by erasing all “background noises”. You should also try to find a modest motive, one which you would usually not even notice: a spider web on the side of the road, a broken pot in the garden, bark, moss, grass, reflections …”

… and insights into the Wabi-Sabi aesthetic:

“Irregular forms are not only more interesting because they offer more to the eye but they also communicate with our human nature. Nowadays we are surrounded by objects that often are only chosen for their usability and which do not allow aging, wearing off and signs of usage due to their material structure. We use materials such as plastic, which is produced without soul, by machines. Their symmetric, even surface does not offer any more stimulation to our eyes.”

…and includes a very brief chapter on digital editing:

“Remember, if you edit your pictures according to Wabi-Sabi, reduce the colorfulness and the brightness of your image. Work with monochrome colors. Reduce the saturation and add minor color shades with split-toning for lights and shadows. Change the photographic cuts and add dark vignette.”

I tensed up a little when I saw that chapter in the ToC, because many people who write about photography through a lens of minimal or muted aesthetics start from a place of non-intervention between camera and reproduction, and because I am on the record as being pretty pro-intervention. Defiantly so. I expected to be scolded, but the author not only encourages intervention, she notes “nostalgia filters” with approval and suggests their use. It was nice to feel some alignment on that score, but when I look back over my entire catalog I can see that I’ve become more interested in color – bright, vibrant color – in the past little while. My choices used to be more in line with lowered saturation and muted tones. I’m not keeping score and don’t really privilege one aesthetic over the other – the nice part about digital editing is that you can come back years later, relook, and rechoose, and I frequently do. The point of reading this book was less to “learn how to do Wabi-Sabi photography,” and more to explore the ways in which my style approaches and departs from the aesthetic. I’m content to put it down, satisfied that I learned something.

Recommended: Sure, as far as it goes. It’s a slim book. It described an aesthetic I observed and provided an accounting of the motives behind that aesthetic. It could be a very bad accounting of a completely different aesthetic.

Wabi-Sabi - Photo School by Jana Mänz 📚