Wabi-Sabi

Wabi-Sabi 1, photograph

A funny thing happened this week – one of those whimsical coincidences that can reveal. I read a book that had been recommended by Donna Watson on her wonderful blog Layers. The book is Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren. In it I found a phrase the not only resonated with me strongly but was the exact same phrase that had been used by Robert Adams which was the inspiration for my last blog posting. I realized that my previous posting had mysteriously foreshadowed this book and that there was a theme here for me to explore further.

Here is the quote from Koren:

“The simplicity of wabi-sabi is probably best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is economy of means. Pare down the essence but don’t remove the poetry”

There’s that phrase again – economy of means. Why was it haunting me?

First, what is wabi-sabi? I won’t attempt to explain it fully here (Koren’s book does a wonderful job of that) but basically it is a fundamental Japanese aesthetic of beauty. In his introduction Koren describes wabi-sabi:

“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.”

I have always been drawn to photographing objects in some state of deterioration. I’d rather shoot an old, decaying building than a new shiny one, a beat up old car than this year’s model, an antique rather than something just made. I never understood what appealed to me in these objects and sometimes felt self-conscious pursuing them.

The concept of wabi-sabi has given me a context within which to consider these subjects. Koren discusses some of the metaphysical, spiritual, moral and emotional foundations of this interesting aesthetic. For example, a metaphysical aspect is “things are devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness”, while a moral precept is “get rid of all that is unnecessary”. The economy of means phrase refers to the unpretentious simplicity vs. materialistic complexity that is also fundamental to wabi-sabi.

I like the idea that what and how I photograph can cause me to think about the world around me in a more conscious manner. I have a feeling a wabi-sabi series is in my future.


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9 responses to “Wabi-Sabi

    • Maureen

      I found the book to be very powerful – it’s extremely short but covers a lot of ground. Not everyone is drawn by the aesthetic wabi-sabi describes, but if you are, this book is full of things to think about.

    • Leslie

      Yes, I know Ian’s blog – it’s in my rss feed. Love to see someone who both paints and photographs.

      Of course, now that I’ve announced my interest in wabi-sabi, I have to deliver on it. One of my self-propulsion strategies…

  1. Loved this post, you’ve put into words feelings that I was having trouble expressing about wabi sabi. I have been thinking about it lately. I read the book several years ago, I think it’s time to read it again.

  2. Great post, Bob – and yes, a wabi-sabi series is in my future, too! I also am drawn to things not perfect, but thinking I couldn’t DO anything with them (i.e. sell them as prints or stock) I tended to just pass over them in search for something more perfect (read salable). HA! I have learned the error of my ways over the years – and now photograph what interests me no matter what end purpose there may or may not be to those photos, as a means of pursuing my vision, expressing my creativity.

  3. Wow. Thanks so much for this — I’m the photographer friend Maureen recommended the Wabi-Sabi book to, and all of the synchronicities here are really sparking me. I’ve been lurking here off and on for over a year now, so it’s fun to see there are still connections though I’ve been away for a bit. I love where this is taking you, and love seeing how your work is evolving…

  4. Found Your blog by coincidence…by the sparsely beautiful photo above…And how very amazing that since six months Koren´s little book is lying on one of my tables…among other eternal favourites …and where I read a little bit now and then…And even if it sounds unbelieveable I found that little book in a shelve in a second hand bookstore and bought it for 5 swedish crowns (approx 1$!), not knowing exactly what it was…but found the photos intriguing…so just for that reason…

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