The Art of Imperfection: The Beauty of Wabi-sabi in Photography

wabi sabi in photography

The Meaning of Wabi-sabi

If you want to get to the heart of Wabi-sabi in Photography you may want to start by looking East. In Japenese Aesthetics, a reverence for beauty and the study of its forms underlie traditional values and are woven into daily life. Two Pillars in the Philosophy of Japanese Aesthetics are the concepts of Wabi and Sabi.

The term “Wabi-sabi” comes from two Japanese words: ‘wabi’ meaning transient beauty and ‘sabi’ referring to the beauty which comes with age and decay. Together, the term Wabi-sabi combines these two principles to represent the aesthetic beauty found in impermanence and imperfection. Impermanence highlights the treasure found in a passing moment and imperfection reminds us of the endless variation in existence that can make even the most common things unique.

Examples of Wabi-sabi

By observing nature the philosophy of Wabi-sabi identifies seven occurrences in which the fleeting beauty of imperfection can be observed.

  • Fukinsei (不均斉): asymmetry, irregularity;
  • Kanso (簡素): simplicity;
  • Koko (考古): basic, weathered;
  • Shizen (自然): without pretense, natural as a human behavior;
  • Yūgen (幽玄): subtly profound grace, not obvious;
  • Datsuzoku (脱俗): unbounded by convention, free;
  • Seijaku (静寂): tranquility, silence.

One prime example of a traditional expression of Wabi-sabi is the Kintsugi form of pottery, also known as the technique of ‘Golden Repair’, where broken pieces of pottery are reassembled with gold.

wabi-sabi in photography
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There is a component of randomness in the unpredictable patterns created in the broken vessels, whether broken intentionally or not. In Kintsugi, the imperfections of Wabi-sabi are highlighted, as cracks and fractures of broken pottery pieces are re-attached with gold or gold enamel, making each piece truly one of a kind and showing the imperfections as something precious.

Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated… a kind of physical expression of the spirit of mushin….Mushin is often literally translated as “no mind,” but carries connotations of fully existing within the moment, of non-attachment, of equanimity amid changing conditions. …The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject.

— Christy Bartlett, Flickwerk: The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics

Wabi-sabi in Photography

In modern artistic techniques, the traditional values of Wabi-sabi can also be embraced. Wabi-sabi in Photography can be used to distinguish pure documentation and generic stock images from Fine Art Photography, by introducing novel and not-so-easily reproducible elements to otherwise familiar images.

Even early on in the evolution of Photography as a form of Art, Wabi-sabi elements could be seen in the photographic movement of Pictorialism of the early 20th Century. During this time, photographers challenged the limits of image making by intentionally creating softly focused, grainy, and often tinted images to blur the lines between photography and expressive painting.

George Seeley Black Bowl
“The Black Bowl”, by George Seeley, circa 1907. Published in Camera Work, No 20 (1907)

But even today with ever sharper and faster cameras, and with automated camera functions like autofocus and auto-exposure, Wabi-sabi in Photography is making a comeback by helping photographers find their individuality in their work and embrace imperfections in the image-making process.

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How to Incorporate Wabi-sabi in your Photography

Wabi-sabi in Photography can be expressed in two primary ways. Either in the subject matter itself or in the technical process of image making, the beauty of imperfection can be captured.

Wabi-sabi in the Subject Matter

One way to embrace Wabi-sabi in your photography is by focusing on the imperfections in daily life which can transform mundane subjects and objects into fascinating visual anomalies. Take for instance this image of the flower below. Technically, the exposure is taken correctly, the composition is centered exactly, and the focus of the center of the flower petal is sharp, so technically, there is nothing wrong with this image.

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Yet, while there are millions of images of flowers on the internet, this one, in particular, may grab your attention. When looking at it, you can’t help but be drawn to the subtle tears on the outer petals. In this image, these breaks in perfection act as focal points for the eyes and draw us in for closer examination. Look closely and you may notice that the damaged areas seem to bring out the rest of the flower’s beauty even more apparently than if it weren’t damaged at all.

In fact, one tip when photographing subjects that are worn and torn is that producing technically beautiful images will serve to accentuate the beauty within the decay. Basically, it comes down to the idea of order out of chaos. You need just enough order to balance out the chaos and achieve a harmony that invites viewers in.

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Likewise, when photographing Wabi-sabi subject matters such as this window and abandoned building, we as viewers will actively search for bits of orderly treasure within the chaos and wreckage. And when we find it, it becomes all the more satisfying.

Wabi-sabi Camera Technique

Wabi-sabi in Photography can also be captured through imperfections with the medium itself. Whether through camera manipulation or through film processing, ‘mistakes’ can be created intentionally to achieve a new aesthetic experience of Wabi-sabi photography.

Below are 5 examples of how the photographic process can be manipulated and purposefully tainted to create expressive, interesting, and unique aesthetic photographic experiences.

  • Light Leaks

Although most common with film cameras, and especially with toy cameras such as Lomo Cameras, light leaks can come about by exposing film or your image plane to additional light outside of your subject. Sometimes this can occur at the beginning or end of a roll of film, but it can also come about by the camera casing itself not being properly sealed.

I would also include vignetting and solar flares as additional light effects that can overlay interesting lighting effects to your image. Check out the hashtag #lightleaks for more.

  • Camera Blur

While motion blur can be captured with a slow shutter speed and a moving subject, camera blur occurs when the camera itself is shaken. Most often this is done unintentionally and can result in undesired results. However, if done intentionally, and with the right subject matter, it can transform a simple image such as this sky and trees below into something surreal and painterly.

Notice the hashtags on this post. For me, #bluronpurpose stands out 😉

  • Film Grain, Noise, or Dust

Wabi-sabi in photography can also be found in grainy or dusty negatives. Filters and applications like Photoshop make it their business to help eradicate such photography faux pas, however, in analog photography you can bring out grain by using higher ISO speeds like 1600 and beyond. You can also push film development which will also give your grain that instability. Dust on the negatives can also be an eye sore, but sometimes it can also serve to reveal and celebrate the medium of analog photography.

  • Soft Focus

Blurry photographs can also be a factor in deeming an image unusable, but when used deliberately, as is the case in this image below, cut and dry edges can become soft, colorful, and playful. Using a long lens and a short depth of field can increase the bokeh effect seen here when lights are transformed into soft bubbly orbs that look more like dabs of paint.

  • Cross Processing

Cross Processing refers to the analog manipulation of film development chemicals which change or skew colors in your image. Most often, this is achieved by using Slide Film and developing the negatives with the chemistry meant for C-41 or normal color film. The reversal of color often results in a greenish hue that can transform the context and tone of an image.

Happy Accidents

As we have seen, Wabi-sabi is a way to incorporate imperfections into your work to discover new visual elements and effects. When we apply Wabi-sabi to photography and to the artistic process itself, we embrace mistakes and errors, not as things to avoid and correct, but as new elements to strive for.

Incorporating these visual surprises are ways not to show our shortcomings, but to highlight the uniqueness of each work of art.

As Bob Ross so eloquently puts it, ‘We don’t make mistakes, we have happy accidents.’

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