I learned a valuable lesson this evening. Sometimes you have to look for beauty where you least expect it. I looked at the sunset and was disappointed it. It was a dud. But the eastern sky was a pastel rose/purple gem. I thought it was a gentle gem. It was almost too subtle for me. It was well worth photographing. This reminded me of a line from another Bruce Cockburn song: “Spirits open to the thrust of grace.” You had to be open for the beauty or you would miss it.
I love old buildings. Old buildings bring to life a philosophy that arose in Japan called Wabi-Sabi. It is a philosophy that concentrates on impermanence and transience. The building epitomizes impermanence. It was crumbling in the field. Practitioners of this philosophy don’t seek perfection. They realize perfection is not of this world. As Richard Martin said, “Wabi-Sabi reminds us that “nothing in life, or design, is perfect.” Practitioners of this art find magic and beauty in the ordinary. They look at the existential. In other words they look at things as they actually are, not in some invisible essence. They concentrate on the vital here and now.
It reminds me of Michelangelo who found beauty and life emerging out of stone. He celebrated the world of becoming as opposed to the world the complete. Incompleteness is all. The philosophy is consistent with the the Buddhist concept of the first noble truth: “Dukka, or in Japanese, mujyou (impermanence). Wabi-Sabi is also a philosophy of the existential. It concentrates on the vital here and now rather than the ideal forms of essence of objects. It is an idea that is comfortable with what actually exists and sees no need to reject that in favor of some idea, which might some day come to place. It is prodigal in favor of what we see here and now in front of us in all of its genuine though by no means pristine glory.
Wabi-Sabi is ready to accept things as they are. It does not see life as many in the West do as a journey of progress towards ever better. It does not look for growth or progress. It accepts the now. It gives a eternal yes to the here and now. In fact it emphasizes instead decay and aging rather than growth and progress towards an ideal. That is exactly what we saw today in the field.
The philosophy of Wabi-Sabi requires that we abandon our customary elentless pursuit of the perfect and the better in favour of marveling what is already there before us. It celebrates what is right with the world right now.
Complementary to this view is an approach that recognizes the importance of slowness. Only when one moves slowly can one see what is often overlooked, namely the beauty in the imperfections that confront us. According to Martin, “For me, this is the perfect antidote to the invasive, slick, saccharine, corporate style of beauty.” It is the style that rejects the airbrushing and Photoshop perfections of corporate advertising campaigns.
I read recently for example, about the fact that the advertising campaigns now photograph women who are gorgeous, but even they cannot compete any more with the perfect ideals they are expected to realize. Even they cannot meet these unreal standards. So photographers routinely airbrush out tiny imperfections or Photoshop changes to the models. Kate Winslett, one of the most beautiful of the current crop of Hollywood actresses was not good enough for a recent edition of GQ magazine. Airbrushing techniques were used to make her thinner. Even though in the article she was quoted as being appalled at the current obsession of the beauty industry with absolute thinness.
Marketing geniuses routinely alter the images of the breasts or waists of their already magnificent models. They are never good enough. The photographs have to be “enhanced.” As a result the beauty you get is as close to perfection as one can get. But to me it reminds me of the moth trying with fatal diligence to get to the perfection of the light. I find such beauty boring, and finally soul destroying.
Opposed to this is the beauty found by Wabi-Sabi. It is found as part of the quiet, the still, the ordinary, the real. As Leonard Koren who wrote in his book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, designers, Poets & Philosophers said,
Wabi-Sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional… The closest English word to wabi-sabi is probably ‘rustic’… Things wabi-sabi are unstudied and inevitable looking… Unpretentious… Their craftsmanship may be impossible to discern.
Photographers who practice Wabi-Sabi find things well worthy of a photograph in old buildings, peeling paint, decaying wood, rusted metal, ancient lichen on old rocks, scratches, and worn spots. They like imperfect lines. They like what is rustic rather than what is antiseptic and shiny new.
As Richard Martin said in Photo Life Magazine, ,
“Wabi symbolizes rustic beauty and quietness. It also denotes simplicity and stillness and can apply to both man-made and natural objects. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies in things, a unique one-of-a-kind flaw, for example, which sometimes occurs during the process of production or creation.
Sabi refers to things whose beauty can come only with age, indicative of natural processes that result in objects that are irregular, unpretentious, and ambiguous. It refers to the patina, such as a very old bronze statue or copper roof turned green. It also incorporates an appreciation of the cycles of life.”
The building standing in the field was collapsing from old age. Sort of like me. The philosophy of Wabi-Sabi does not reject aging as many in the West do. It embraces it instead. It welcomes the grace and greater beauty that often follows. That is how I felt about the building standing in the field.
Andrew Juniper in his book Wabi-Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence described it this way,
“Wabi-Sabi is an intuitive appreciation of transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds melancholic beauty in the impermanence of things… The term wabi-sabi suggests such qualities as impermanence, humbleness, asymmetry, and imperfection. These underlying principles are diametrically opposed to those of their Western counterparts, whose values are rooted in the Hellenic worldview that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection.”
To my mind this a grand view of life and beauty. It recognizes the extraordinary that is all around us. We don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to find it. It can exist out in a farmer’s field. It is not far off in some ideal world that we can never approach. Like Jude we may have to find that the beauty or the love we seek is on our shoulder. All we have to do is be aware. All we have to do is see.
Then, when we see that beauty, as photographers we press the shutter. The camera is the perfect instrument for dealing with the here and now. That is all it can do. It can only see and record that one brief shining moment when its shutter is open—so briefly yet so completely. That is photography!
One of the parents of Wabi-sabi is a philosophy that is in determined opposition to soulless consumption. It resists that soulless consumption that insists always on something new. It cherishes the old. It rejects the modern fetish of the modern. It accepts the old for what it is—something of lasting durable value, even where the outer appearance is shabby is worn. The real value of the thing remains. It is what endures, no matter what blows are suffered upon it.
It is only the dull, shallow, and shabby who no longer appreciate this beauty. People that are swindled by the temptation of shiny appearances, baubles in other words, are the same ones who can no longer recognize true value. There is an enduring value in things that the genuine conservative wants to preserve. The conservative wants to conserve the valuable.
Those who don’t see the enduring value think that time spent on repairing, protecting, or restoring is time wasted. So often in today’s shallow world as soon as something is apparently not working as well as it should it is discarded. Not only is that wasteful, it is foolishness. The person of Wabi-Sabi searches out what is of enduring value.
Perhaps the Persian poet Rumi said it best when he said, “Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.”