The Wabi-sabi of Cinema by Brian Wood-Koiwa
Brian Wood-Koiwa shares with us the correlation between the traditional Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-sabi and the natural imperfections inherent in film photography.
Wabi-sabi & Film Photography
Wabi-sabi, in essence, is the Japanese aesthetic philosophy that there is beauty in imperfection, the traditional notion of beauty is fleeting and superficial, and nothing is perfect. Once this is understood, it will become easier to jump off the wheel of Sisyphean hamster perfectionism. After overcoming the perhaps frightening disorientation of being on the solid ground of what the Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome promoted, the willingness to accept what you cannot controla much freer world will appear before you.
Film photography is an ideal example of being forced out of the futile whirlwind of perfectionism and into the firm world of Wabi-sabi; to abandon the belief that images should be perfect, i.e. have perfect composition, follow the rules of a particular subgenre, and be sharp without any blurring.
Quote from Henri Cartier-Bresson
One of my favorite photography quotes is from legendary street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who, with a bit of snobbery, said, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.” Knowing that Cartier-Bresson was definitely born into the wealthy but fairly conventional French bourgeoisie, I think it’s safe to say that he probably didn’t think very highly of his rather monotonous and unimaginative class, although he surely took advantage of it. So sharpness – a common measure of photographic perfection – must by association be mundane and unimaginative.
When I first read this quote I held a little party fest in my head and thought “exactly!”. I discovered that I was not alone in thinking that photography is and should be more than the cold “pseudo” technical perfection that so many of us are trying in vain to achieve, especially with the advent of digital. . This short and rather harsh quote is one of the main reasons why, about 6 years ago, I moved away from digital, where we can get closer to this cold, sometimes almost icy perfection, towards a film embracing the Wabi -sabi.
With cinema, you are much more not in control but in partnership with the gods of mechanics and chemistry when it comes to the output of the image. You can’t do and control so much. There are often slight or not so slight “imperfections” or “spots” that magically appear, allowing the uniqueness of the image to show through. These idiosyncrasies are the fingerprints co-created by the synergistic symbiosis between you the photographer, the camera, the development process and the chemicals, and a good part of kismet. This sympatico noise will never be repeated even in another frame of the same scene.
This is particularly evident in the most wabi-sabi of all photographs – that taken with the Polaroid SX-70 terrestrial camera.
I bought a refurbished vintage SX-70 a few years ago and had my eyes opened to the sublime imperfections created with it. All the factors that are not in my control – the age of the camera, the lost and then found scratch formula of the new Polaroid film, and the rudimentary controls on the camera itself – help me , finally, force me to accept the possibilities of imperfection.
It’s pretty obvious from what I’ve written above that I’m not a perfectionist and proud of it. I have been much happier in my creative life after learning about Wabi-sabi and more recently from Another Mother’s Brother (or Another Gentleman’s Sister) Stoicism. Too much time is wasted running around on that hamster wheel trying to be perfect or create perfect results; a perfection which is almost always not our own, but which is fixed by the subjective vision of others on perfection. Think of all these rules we learn about how to accomplish a particular subgenre of photography; following the rules laid down by those who are considered experts who believe that following this rule or rule will lead you to perfection.
It is an exercise in futility trying to meet other people’s expectations of perfection. Instead, I would like to achieve the sense of the sublime, which incidentally does not include the word “perfection” in its definition.
Of course, Wabi-sabi is much more complex than that as it is a philosophy rooted in the Buddhist tradition. As with any personal philosophical endeavor, you just need to pick the fruits of a particular tree of knowledge and perhaps others that help you in your creative entries and excursions.
The images included in 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, the camera (especially the SX-70), and myself.
You can see more of Brian’s work here:
As always, comments and thoughts are always welcome. However, be respectful and mind your manners. Thanks.