Life is the embodiment of imperfection. Learning to appreciate imperfection is learning to appreciate life. Furthermore, appreciating imperfection can help your photography. It can also make life easier along the way.
Sometimes, at least at face value, this can seem somewhat counterintuitive when we think about photography. We are often looking for “perfect” subjects, conditions, and locations. Photographers may find themselves looking for perfection when it comes to things like positions, angles, models, camera settings, and lighting. In studio work, photographers work with ideal, controllable lighting conditions to get that perfect shot.
I’m going to be blunt. Get over the idea of perfection or, at least, the need for it. This is especially true based on varying perceptions.
This isn’t to say don’t strive to attain high standards nor does it mean you shouldn’t push yourself to your limit and beyond. You can and should do this, as appropriate. And, of course, you can strive for perfection knowing it likely can’t be attained. These mindsets can lead to greatness, expertise, success and more, as long as the focus of standards don’t become a hinderance of sorts.
All that aside, an important factor in life is to forgo the perceived need, and existence, of absolute perfection.
Appreciating imperfection is not only a certain skill towards accepting reality, but it is also a beauty in its own right. In regards to photography, it can bring elements of intrigue, interest and engagement in your work. The imperfections being more accurate depictions of reality. Moreover, it can also be an immensely powerful driving force toward progress and improvement.
To help understand this, we will turn to…
The concept of wabi-sabi has been popularized in Japan although the concept was present in ancient Chinese art and literature well before. Wabi-sabi is often mentioned as a Japanese aesthetic concept, but the notion can extend beyond the nature and appreciation of beauty.
Looking at wabi-sabi purely as an aesthetic principle may make the concept more accessible and comprehensible. It can be particularly applicable in art and decor and is commonplace throughout Japan. Around the world interior designers attempt to capitalize on this concept, whether intentional or not – I’m looking at you annoyingly unoriginal, trendy hipster joints and the equally stale hipsters who frequent them.
Understanding this concept can be difficult. This is not only because of difficulty in explanation, but also due to the fact that the concept itself can be somewhat unexplainable, even by many Japanese. Despite the ambiguity, there is a general way in which wabi-sabi is described and understanding it’s origins can help as well. Lastly, in many ways it a very unique and personal concept, which allows for individual translation and implementation of the concept.
Wabi and Sabi
Originally, wabi had a connotation relating to the aloneness or separation from society as experienced by a hermit. Despite the initial negative implication, in the 14th century in Japan the perspective of the hermit in self-imposed isolation changed. This voluntary state of poverty allowed for opportunity for greater spiritual richness. Thus, wabi came to imply simplicity, impermanence, flaws, and imperfection.
Sabi literally means solitude or loneliness and refers to the contemplative nature often found in poetry, art, music, landscape, and atmosphere. It can be seen throughout Japanese cultural expression including the aforementioned as well, as archery, calligraphy, ceramics, tea ceremonies, and more. Sabi represents the irregular, unpretentious, and ambiguous, as well as the effect that time has on everything.
The General Idea
Wabi-sabi as Andrew Juniper explains in Wabi-sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence,
“The term wabi-sabi suggests such qualities as impermanence, humility, 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. …
Wabi-sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a 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 a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things.”
Wabi-sabi refers to the perspective and thought of finding and appreciating beauty in all aspects of imperfection in nature and the authenticity of these natural states. It is about the acceptance of the nature of imperfection, impermanence and incompletion. Rather than seeking to attain or discover the unachievable, that being perfection, it promotes the acceptance of flaws. Rather than seeking to constantly modify and refine to attain the utmost perceivable level of exactness, it is an ideal that embraces rawness. The varied flaws are what allow for uniqueness and individual beauty.
Wabi-sabi is the appreciation of what is initially dismissed as detraction. It is the appreciation of natural flaws, marks of decay , and the blemishes and wounds left behind by fate. It is the appreciation of time and the conditions of life.
Buddhist Roots: Three Marks of Existence
Wabi-sabi’s aesthetics and principles are derived from Zen Buddhism, but at it’s root they are based in a Buddhist principle, known as the three marks of existence.
Traditionally, in Thervada Buddhism, the three marks of existence are impermanence (Pali: annica), non-self (anatta), and unsatisfactoriness or suffering (dukkha). However, there is some variation. For example, Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, identifies a slightly varied take on the fundamental tenets of Buddhism. He refers to them as the three seals. The seals are impermanence, non-self, and nirvana. Additionally, some teachers incorporate all four of these marks or seals; impermanence, suffering, non-self, and nirvana.
Regardless, of which foundation you look at Wabi-sabi is, nonetheless, based on aspects of these Buddhist concepts.
This is a significant aspect of wabi-sabi and the foundation of Buddhism. Nothing lasts forever, at least not in its current state. The state and condition of everything changes every single moment.
At face value the concept of impermanence is straight forward. However, digging a bit deeper we also understand that because of, and despite, constant change things cannot be wholly described as being the same or different.
This idea is similar to Heraclitus’ philosophy that everything is in flux. In Plato’s Cratylus, Heraclitus is credited for saying, “all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river…you could not step twice into the same river.”
Heraclitus’ analogy of change and the river accurately depicts the idea of impermanence.
We are disillusioned by the fact that we have named the river and for ease practical application, the river is perceived as a single thing. The Euphrates, Maritsa, Ganges, Danube, Mississippi, Mekong, etc. When we step into the river today, the water is not the same as the water from yesterday and it will not be the same tomorrow. However, generally speaking we consider this to be the same river. In reality, the river’s most integral element is not present. So, is it truly the same river?
Impermanence is freedom and accepting impermanence can help us accept imperfection. If nothing lasts forever in its current state then it is imperfect. Perfectly imperfect.
The whole cosmos has come together in order to help the flower manifest herself.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
The notion of impermanence lends itself to the idea of no self. As things are ever-changing, like the river, there is no permanent state. We, as well as other things, are merely composites. A multitude of individual elements forming a unified whole. Furthermore, the unified whole is often perceived as a singular thing. Our social mindsets often reinforce this along with a natural reality of many languages, which are meant to identify and categorize.
Consider this, for most of us, a car is a car. We don’t think of the various parts that make up the car, much less the materials that went into making those parts.
Or consider people. Thanks, to science, we are aware of the elements that combine to make people, and various things, and what we and they are. However, in our natural arrogance, and preference for ease and clarification, we effortlessly consume a perspective of unified self. In reality, we are interconnected and interdependent. We are nothing without other elements. Physically, the human body is made up of mostly oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus.
Nothing exists in and of itself. Everything is a dependent, collection with a label.
If we accept that things are interdependent and interconnected then we must accept that they influence each other. Through this influence we are constantly changing to various degrees. And, so, once again we are impermanent, we are changing, and we are free.
Neil deGrasse Tyson does an excellent job discussing this reality of no-self in the video below. If you receive the Photography Insight Journal email, you may recognize similarities to the video narrated by Alan Watts. Whether based on science, as described by Neil deGrasse Tyson, or philosophy, as described by Alan Watts, we can learn to appreciate the beauty of no-self.
The suffering of Dukkha, incorporates unsatisfactoriness and pain. There are believed to be three types of suffering. The suffering of suffering (dukkha-dukkha), which refers to the physical and emotional discomfort in life. The suffering of change (viparinama-dukkha) is the inability to accept change. Lastly, we have the suffering of existence (sankhara-dukkha), which is a bit more abstract and refers to a kind of natural unsatisfactoriness of simply being .
It stands for the physical and mental suffering in life, commonly stemming from expectations and lack of true acceptance of imperfection and no-self. It revolves around the belief that because we exist, we also suffer. Because all things are impermanent, if we if fail to recognize this and hold on to the illusions of self and permanence we accidentally create more suffering.
Imperfection and Photography
Now that we have a general idea of wabi-sabi and imperfection, how does all this apply to photography?
Breaking rules of composition, important elements out of focus, unintentional motion blur due to slow shutter speed, and poor light. These, among other issues, are all sometimes found in our work and we often see them as being less than ideal or even ugly or bad. In a previous post, I discussed what makes a good photo. And I’m somewhat contradicting those concepts and suggestions with this post. However, as with any art and much of life, photography is subjective.
There are several ways we could look at this, depending on the intent of your photographic work and your own take on the concept of wabi-sabi, and the root ideals. Leaving the religion aspect out of it, we can discover artistic philosophies as well as life philosophies. It really just depends on the type of photography and the photographers vision and intent. Some types of photography might demand work edging closer to some sort of idea of “perfection.”
Imperfections due to technical limitations are improved upon due to advancements in technology. However, these improvements can strengthen our recognition of deficiencies. This can skew our perspective so that we assume that the closer to perfection is inherently better.
Regardless, many popular social media filters simulate what are technically imperfections or limitations of older cameras or prints. They mimic film grain and digital ISO noise, light leaks, time-worn prints, and more. The commonplace use of these are prime examples of embracing imperfection, whether you are a fan of using these filters or not.
Conversely, the “beautification” filters utilized these days are the complete opposite of wabi-sabi. There is nothing wrong with using them, but they tend to speak directly to an unfortunate reality of the suffering in society.
Sometimes good or “perfect” is too good. Too perfect. This is particularly true for someone that is well attuned to appreciation of imperfection.
Not everyone will agree, but technical flaws can create a more emotional connection for the viewer. Blemishes and flaws, awkward blur, odd composition and speckled noise. These can engage the viewer with a more raw feeling photo. It can engross the viewer in the story through its honesty and acceptance of imperfection.
In street photography and other types of candid, quick, reactive shooting, sometimes you have to get what you can. The conditions may not be ideal. Backgrounds and foregrounds, misplaced objects, and awkward poses are all common in street photography. They are accurate representations of the world.
I’m not saying go out there and aim to take poor photos. Rather, sometimes allow imperfections to compliment your work. Accept them for the uniqueness they bring to your shot.
Zen Buddhism: 7 Aesthetic Principles
So, understanding a bit about wabi-sabi and imperfection can help with appreciation of the mistakes and flaws in your work. Similar concepts, also rooted in the same philosophies, can also can offer some ideas for your photos. While I won’t get into details on these principles, they are interesting to know and can offer some inspiration. It’s important to acknowledge that although they are aesthetic principles, the philosophies behind them can extend beyond aesthetics, as with wabi-sabi.
1. Fukinsei: Asymmetry, irregularity, imperfection
2. Kanso: Simplicity
3. Kokou: Wizened austerity
4. Shinzen: Naturalness
5. Yugen: Subtly profound grace
6. Datsuzoku: Condition of being free from worldly desires
7. Seijaku: Tranquility
Personally, I would say that one of the best takeaways from a wabi-sabi mindset is not necessarily an appreciation of photographic imperfection, but appreciation of a photos current state. Even if our photography is aimed at inspiring change, it requires an acceptance the current state before there can be hope of change.
Wabi-sabi doesn’t speak for the imperfection of your photo, but for it’s representation of a moment in it’s current state. It is the capturing of a moment and frame of a specific moment in time. A specific moment in the subjects time. Wabi-sabi asks us to celebrate our work for what is it, rather than a subjective perception of what it should be.
This is a beauty of increasing our knowledge of seemingly disconnected subjects. The more we learn, the more we can apply to our understanding and creation of art. It can help us harmonize.
Most importantly, it effects how we perceive, analyze and consume the world around, and within, us.
You are the universe experiencing itself.
– Alan Watts
Now that you’ve learned a bit about appreciating imperfection, if you want to share some of your favorite imperfect shots or utilizing some of the Zen aesthetic principles or any other photos, tag me on Instagram, @ted_stanton_photography.
Also, check out my free ebook, 5 Unique Photo Challenges, for some inspiration. Sign up for the Photography Insight Journal using the form at the bottom of the page to receive the link to download a copy.