Sunday, March 18, 2012

What the Hell is Wabi-Sabi iPhoneography?!

I’ll get to that question in a minute . . . first a little back story.

I got my iPhone 4S in November 2011 and now, to my surprise, it’s the only camera I carry! Although I am new to iPhoneography, I have been a photographer for nearly 40 years.

I fell into photography pretty much by chance when I enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute’s photography department. At the time, 1971, SFAI was only one of maybe three art schools in the country that taught photography as a fine art as opposed to a commercial craft.

That meant the focus was on the aesthetics of “seeing” and translating that seeing through the camera and black and white film. It was a rich and avant garde environment in San Francisco’s North Beach, still ripe with coffee houses, artists, writers, poets and photographers.

For those of you who are experienced photographers, I always favored small, light cameras. My first camera was a Nikon S2 rangefinder, then a Leica M3 and an Olympus half frame. They were quiet, unobtrusive and inconspicuous.

Since discovering the iPhone I have rediscovered the sense of joy, passion, sheer fun and creativity I experienced in art school with those cameras. And I love it!

Which brings me to the opening question, what is wabi-sabi? And what does it have to do with iPhoneography?

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic arising out of the Zen tradition. It is a celebration of the beauty, harmony and authenticity of the imperfect, mundane or often overlooked. It concedes that nothing is permanent, nothing lasts and nothing is perfect. And in that lies a unique beauty for the discerning eye. While the iPhone camera and iPhoneography itself may be considered a medium of expression of those very same wabi-sabi values, it flies in the face of the often fanatical pursuit of image "sharpness" that accompany more traditional forms and tools of photography.

According to writer Patricia Ward, "Wabi, sabi, and suki are important yet illusive concepts that explain the notion of Japanese beauty. Wabi denotes simplicity and quietude and incorporates rustic beauty, such as patterns found in straw, bamboo, clay, or stone. It refers to both that which is made by nature and that which is made by man. Sabi refers to the patina of age, the concept that changes due to use may make an object more beautiful and valuable. This incorporates an appreciation of the cycles of life and careful, artful mending of damage. Suki means subtle elegance referring to beauty in accidental creation or unconventional forms."

Japanese architect Tadao Ando says, “Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It's a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. It's a richly mellow beauty that's striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long, long time . . .”

I believe the iPhone with its multiplicity of apps, produces all kinds of imperfect yet beautiful images, both by professional photographers and novices alike. And I observe so many of these “iPhoneographers” having a blast playing with all the creative possibilities that are contained right within the tool itself!

As Teri Lou Dantzler shared in a recent blog post, paraphrasing here, iPhoneography is photography and those who use the iPhone are making photographic images. So, iPhoneography exists in a long tradition of technical and aesthetic practices and distinctions. And, at the same time, appears to be producing both a revolution and an evolution in the art of photographic image making.

If the notion of wabi-sabi appeals to you I encourage you to explore the idea for yourself. Go on an art walk around your home, your yard or neighborhood as a kind of meditation, moving slowly and allowing your unconscious to lead your eye and perhaps direct your gaze toward some previously unnoticed scene; gardening utensils lying haphazardly on a worn table or bench, blossoms in a state of early decay, some object out of place or set askew.

Remember, you are looking for the imperfect, the worn and well used or ordinary and often overlooked.

See if this kind of exercise brings some new awareness and sensitivity to your image making with your iPhone. And thus producing images of exceptional beauty “that you can imagine having around you for a long, long time . . .”

Here are some images that could perhaps qualify as wabi-sabi.

Headless Man in Madrid Airport

Old Adobe Wall and Wooden Door

The Last Red Leaf

Buddha Hand Squash

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Fire Shaman

A shaman communicates with elemental forces of nature. He or she walks between the worlds of Spirit and the worlds of sentient beings, invoking healing and transformation for his or her people.
While this image may not capture true wabi sabi, I believe it is in the spirit of wabi sabi simply due to its elemental nature.
Destruction and creation are constant cosmic companions.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Snapper's Eye

What could be more mundane than a fish, a snapper in this case, lying in the ice of the sea food section of the grocery store. This one transformed in capture by my iPhone and transformed in post processing.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Three Doors - Rivarolo, Italy

These old, worn doors on a street front building in Rivarolo, Italy are perhaps a good example of wabi sabi. It could be easy to walk right past these doors and never give them a second glance. That second glance, though, could reveal the beauty in the circular carvings in the middle of each door, as well as the dark and light patina on the wood from untold yers of use.
Do these doors convey a sense of beauty and harmony to you? What, if any, other qualities do you observe in them?