Musings on Photography

Wabi, Sabi, Shibui

Posted in aesthetics by Paul Butzi on January 15, 2007

I’ve been thinking hard about culture and aesthetics.  I live in the pacific northwest of the US and thus the influence of the orient is all around me, not just in economic terms but also in deeper cultural terms.

And, as it turns out, my son is studying Japanese.  So taking a look at aesthetics in the Japanese culture is a natural – I’ve got a handy expert.  All right, maybe not an expert – he’s been to Japan twice, he’s enthused about the culture, he studies hard.  But neither he nor I are really experts.  Take what follows with a grain of salt.

The key concepts seem to be Wabi, Sabi, and Shibui.

According to the book The Japanese Have a Word for It, ‘wabi’ translates as ‘quiet’ or ‘tranquil’, with a strong connotation of  refined simplicity.  According to the same text, ‘sabi’ refers to the special beauty that comes from aging.  “Shibui” apparently refers to a “restrained, highly refined beauty that epitomizes classic simplicity”.  Running through all of this is a strong emphasis on harmony and balance. 

This certainly does seem to describe a different sort of aesthetic sense from that of Western cultures.  At the same time, it seems to resonate pretty strongly with the work of some landscape photographers – the names Michael Kenna and Paul Caponigro spring to mind right out of the gate.

I remember, some years ago, when I happened to see a PBS program on the work of Japanese photographers in the US.  Most of the work shown was from the first half of the 20th century, and what struck me most forcefully was the extent to which the work of these Japanese photographers seemed into mainstream B&W landscape photography of the latter half of the 20th century.  That, and the fact that the work of these photographers was really, really good, but I’d never heard of them.  I tried to track down something about these photographers at the library and on the web, and there was… nothing.

That’s too bad.

2 Responses

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  1. sjconnor said, on January 15, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    You might like to read “In Praise of Shadows”, by Tanizaki. It’s an essay, written in 1933, discussing tradional Japanese aesthetics. It’s very short – all of 42 pages – but very interesting. And, incredibly enough, it’s still being published:
    (I only say “incredibly” because I bought my copy, ohhhh….25 years ago?)

  2. sjconnor said, on January 15, 2007 at 8:57 pm

    Oops. Looks like Leete’s Island Books is either defunct or setting up a new web site. However, Amazon’s also got the book.

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