Wabi Sabi

Wabi and Sabi and Creative Photography 

Wabi is a feeling of loneliness synonymous with solitude, reflection, a sense of non-attachment and appreciation for the spontaneous unfolding of circumstances.  It is like the quiet that comes from a winter snowfall, where all the sounds are hushed and stillness envelopes everything. 

Sabi is the suchness of ordinary objects, the basic, unmistakable uniqueness of a thing that is and of itself.

Much art, other than photography, is generally presented as expressions of creativity:

 “Here’s a symbol for what I felt.”

 “Here’s a metaphor for something meaningful.”

 “Here’s an expression of my beliefs and philosophy.”

 “Here’s a unique style, or innovative arrangement, I came up with that defines my work as distinct from others.”

 “Here’s a visual experience for you to contemplate.”

In contrast, much photography seems deliberately presented as decidedly uncreative:

 “Here’s where I’ve been.”

 “Here’s what happened.”

 “Look how lucky I got!”

 “Here’s a picture of …”

An on-line landscape photography magazine I read is having an ongoing conversation about the truth, or lack there of, about a photograph.  Before digital photography, when film was all there was, photography was presented as absolute truth of a thing.  That’s because the photographer could present the print and the negative to show that no intervention had occurred between the developing of the negative and the making of the print so, therefore the print represented exactly what the camera saw.  And since the camera lens was much better at capturing fine detail than any human could represent with a paint brush, then, by default, the camera lens captured truth.

But was that precisely true?

As photography progressed with newer different focal length lenses, e.g., wide angle, telephoto and variable zoom lenses, absolute truth was no longer true.  A wide angle lens distorts perspective and exaggerates the distances between objects, while telephoto lenses compress distances between objects making them appear closer together.

Enter the digital sensor that captures photons of light, converts those photons into a computer file of 1s and 0s, and once the shutter is pressed, a computer file is stored on a memory card.  The memory card, depending on the photographer’s budget, can hold thousands of computer (images) files.  While the photographer can display an ”image” on the camera’s LCD screen of the ”picture” he/she just took, the image he/she is looking at is the camera’s firmware’s interpretation of the 1s and 0s rendered by sensor.  Once the ”image” file is downloaded onto a computer, opened/edited with image editing software, there’s an excellent chance the processed ”image“ and the ”image“ displayed on the camera’s LCD screen will have little in common.

What does all of the preceding have to do with Wabi Sabi and creative photography?

As the winter freeze gave way to a welcome Spring thaw, I walked along the banks of a small creek near my home.  The banks were still solid enough to walk along, but venturing out onto the ice was an adventure.  After breaking through the ice, falling backwards, but keeping my camera in the air, and regaining my footing and I spotted a patch of melting ice and flowing water.

As I stared at the scene in front of me, a realisation formed in my mind - water was present in three different forms, in one place, at one time: snow, ice and liquid.  I was seeing the transformative power of nature in real time.  The shape and form of the ice reminded me of fingers reaching down into the cold, moving water.  The bubbling water sounded like laughter as the creek welcomed the melting snow and ice back to its previous form.  My awareness of my surroundings faded; I was alone, my mind focused entirely on the tiny scene in front of me.

How do I capture the awe, my amazement and the extent of my emotional reactions into an image that conveys all this to a viewer?

The Wabi Sabi concept came back to me.  I framed the scene on the camera’s LCD screen, slowly moving progressively closer, eliminating extraneous details, until the image in my mind’s eye displayed on the LCD screen.  I smiled to myself as I pressed the shutter release.  I lowered my camera, fully satisfied I’d captured my emotional response to the ongoing transformation before me in nature.

Is the above image the truth, or is it ”presented as an expression of creativity”?

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