The Wabi-sabi of Film by Brian Wood-Koiwa
Brian Wood-Koiwa shares with us the correlation between the traditional Japanese aesthetics of Wabi-sabi and the natural imperfections inherent in film photography.
Wabi-sabi & Film photography
Wabi-sabi, in essence, is the Japanese aesthetic philosophy stating that there is beauty in imperfection, the traditional notion of beauty is fleeting and superficial, and nothing is perfect. Once one understands this, it will become easier to jump off the Sisyphean hamster wheel of perfectionism. After overcoming the possibly frightening disorientation of being on the solid ground of, what the Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome promoted, the will of accepting what one cannot control, a much freer world will appear before you.
Film photography is an ideal example of being forced off the futile whirling of perfectionism and onto the firm world of Wabi-sabi; of letting go of the belief that images need to be perfect, i.e., have perfect composition, follow the rules of a particular sub-genre, and be sharp with no fuzziness whatsoever.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Quote
One of my favorite photography quotes is by the legendary street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who, rather snobbishly said, “sharpness is a bourgeois concept.” Knowing that Cartier-Bresson was definitely born into the wealthy but quite conventional French bourgeoisie, I think it safe to say that he probably did not think very highly of his rather humdrum and unimaginative class, though he surely benefited from it. Thus, sharpness – a common measure of photographic perfection – must by his association be humdrum and unimaginative.
When I first read this quote, I held a little celebratory festival in my head and said to myself “exactly!”. I found I was not alone in thinking that photography is and should be more than the cold technical ‘pseudo’ perfection that so many of us attempt in vain to attain, especially with the advent of digital. This short and rather harsh quote is one of the main reasons about 6 years ago I moved away from digital, where we can became closer to that cold, sometimes almost frigid, perfection, toward Wabi-sabi-embracing film.
With film, you are much more not in control but in partnership with the mechanical and chemical gods regarding how the image comes out. You can only do and control so much. There are often slight or not-so-slight ‘imperfections’ or ‘blemishes’ that magically appear, enabling the unique character of the image to show itself. These idiosyncrasies are the fingerprints co-created through the synergistic symbiosis among you the photographer, camera, developing process and chemicals, and a good portion of kismet. This sympatico noise will never repeat itself even in another image of the same scene.
This is particularly evident in the most Wabi-sabi of all photography – that produced with the Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera.
I bought a vintage re-furbished SX-70 a few years ago and have had my eyes opened to the sublime imperfections created with it. All the factors that are not under my control – the age of the camera, the lost then re-found starting-from-scratch formula of the new Polaroid film, and rudimentary controls on the camera itself – help, well, force me to accept the possibilities of imperfection.
Value of Imperfection
It is quite obvious from what I wrote above that I am not a perfectionist and proud to be one. I have been much happier in my creative life after learning the existence of Wabi-sabi and more recently the brother from another mother (or sister from another mister) Stoicism. There is too much time wasted running to nowhere on that hamster wheel trying to be perfect or create perfect results; a perfection that is almost always not of our own but that set by others’ subjective take on perfection. Think of all those rules we learn on how to accomplish a particular sub-genre of photography; following rules set by those who are deemed experts who believe that following that rule or this rule will lead you to perfection.
It is an exercise in futility to try to meet others’ expectations of perfection. Instead, I would like to reach the sense of the sublime, which by the way does not include the word “perfection” in its definition.
Of course Wabi-sabi is much more complex than this as it is a philosophy rooted in Buddhist tradition. As with any personal philosophical endeavor, you only need to pick the fruit from a particular knowledge tree and perhaps some from others that help you in your creative in- and excursions.
The images included with this article are those I co-created with an SX-70, Leica MP, and Canonet G-III QLI7. All were happy results of the unpredictability of the film, camera (especially the SX-70), and myself.
You can see more of Brian’s work here:
As always comments and thoughts are always welcome. Though please be respectful and mind your manners. Thanks.