Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. These are the three truths of the Japanese concept wabi-sabi, an aesthetic philosophy centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Wabi-sabi tells us to chill. To abandon the pursuit of perfection. It’s a philosophy that’s helped me in many aspects of my life, notably in my photography. Where I used to chase the perfect photo, now I see that my imperfect photos are my best photos. In fact, the only photos that I want to make these days are imperfect ones.
As an aesthetic concept, wabi-sabi can be thought of as beauty found in physical imperfection; the patina that comes with age and use. The most often cited examples are a cracked piece of pottery or a tea cup stained by years of use. You can also lump in those unrestored 1960s Porsche 911s with sunburnt paint and scratched bumpers and faded chrome. These things embody wabi-sabi, it’s true. But for me, wabi-sabi is less about the physical aesthetic of objects and more about training the observer to see that imperfect things are more fascinating and beautiful than perfect things.
I used to spend incalculable hours cleaning and polishing and obsessing over shiny paint and sparkling metal. When my BMW Z3 Roadster turned fifteen years old, I noticed a centimeter spot of rust bubbling under the paint on the inside lip of its trunk lid. I worried about this rust for six months before spending the $500 to have it repainted. Months later I found more rust inside the rear wheel well. I stressed about this rust every time I thought of the car for the next five years.
I once built a Triumph Bonneville, spending dozens of hours polishing the motorcycle’s exhaust headers, frustrated by the gold, yellow, and blue discoloration of the chrome brought on by the blistering heat of internal combustion. In the pursuit of perfection, I painted that motorcycle three times in five years. It was perfect, and it won an award. Two months later it was scratched by my father-in law as he moved some lumber in my garage. This depressed me.
This was before I read about wabi-sabi.
I now know that instead of researching rust removers and spending hundreds of dollars to repair an imperceptible flaw, I should have been driving that car. I should have used that car to bring my wife out on a date, where from the passenger and driver seats we’d never have noticed the dime-sized speck of rust in the trunk. Instead of maniacally polishing header pipes for weeks, I should have seen the beauty in the iridescence of golds and blues layered within silver chrome – and added to the spectrum of color with miles spent leaning into corners hard on the throttle. It took me more than a decade to have this epiphany. My journey to photographic wabi-sabi took even longer.
Seventeen years ago I began paying attention to my photography. That’s when I bought my first camera with my own money, a five megapixel Minolta DSLR. I spent that winter trying to make good photos. I bought snowshoes, and stamped alone through the woods every time it snowed. I spent hours and days making pictures of frozen lakes and gleaming icicles and brilliant white flurries frozen in midair by a burst of light from an on-camera flash. I shot in program mode, because this made the most perfect pictures. They were perfect recordings.
In a National Geographic Guide to Digital Photography, I read about sharpness and making a proper exposure, and ISO, and how to eliminate digital noise and why distortion is bad. I read about zoom lenses, and fast apertures, and how to get rid of undesirable motion blur, and how to compose an image, and about which camera brand had the fastest and most accurate auto-focus system. I internalized this knowledge deeply and automatically.
A year later, I spent significantly more money to buy a better camera with more megapixels, ten this time, and a zoom lens. I went back to the woods and shot sharper pictures of snow and sky, and bright birds hunkered against the backdrop of white and blue, the bark of the trees slick and black from the melt under a late-winter sun. Flurries were now frozen in midair by a burst of light from an off-camera thyristor flash. The pictures were good. I was getting closer to perfect. I just needed to buy some more gear, and then I’d get there.
Over the next ten years I pursued taking objectively better photos, the type that the pros made, the type that I saw on posters. To do this, I bought the best of everything. The best cameras with the best lenses, the best tripods and filters. The best memory storage and the best Apple computer with the best display. Finally, my landscape photos were clinically perfect. Sharp edge to edge with no distortion.
My photos were approaching closer and closer to perfection. And becoming more and more boring. And I was enjoying photography less and less.
When I embraced film, everything changed. But not because film was inherently better than digital. I won’t profess that nonsense. Film isn’t as good as digital. Not as good, at least, at making perfect photos. The difference was (and remains) that when I shot film I would accidentally make many more imperfect photos than I was capable of making with my digital gear. Digital is, after all, much easier and much closer to perfection. My film photos weren’t perfect, they weren’t even good, and it was frustrating until I began to see things differently.
That was the big change. When I began to see photography at large in a different way. When I realized that my “bad” film photos were actually more beautiful, more full of life than my digital photos. When I realized that perfection is overrated. That the clinical precision of the best digital camera can create a perfect reproduction of whatever I point it at, yes, but where’s the fun in that? The best painting in the world will always be more moving than the best photo in the world. I always wanted to be a painter. Unfortunately, I’m a terrible painter. Shooting film gets me closer.
But it wasn’t really film that helped me find peace in my photography. Film just opened my eyes to the fact that I didn’t need to be perfect. I could abandon the quest and find freedom in the failure. I could choose limitation, and embrace limitation, and switch off of program mode and shoot by feel. I could choose whatever film I felt like choosing, and stop worrying that the National Geographic Guide to Whatever told me to choose a higher ISO. Peace came when I embraced imperfection in my photography, and when I embraced imperfection in my abilities as a photographer.
I no longer have ambitions of perfection for my photos. In fact, I recoil from perfection. I don’t want to use the best cameras or modern lenses. I don’t want my pictures to be sharp. I don’t want them to be in focus. I don’t want them to be properly exposed and free of distortion. I don’t want them to be objectively perfect at the cost of being subjectively vacuous. My best photos are the ones with feeling. And feeling comes from movement, energy, thought, emotion, experience, and luck.
I’ve made a lot of photos in the past fifteen years. And many of them were the first type, objectively correct photographs, carefully composed and accurately exposed, in focus, with just the right depth-of-field, sharp edge-to-edge. But sitting here trying to recall or envision any one of those photos in my mind, I can’t do it. They’re just not there. They are entirely forgettable.
But there are other photos that I can instantly call to mind. And inevitably they’re the ones that are imperfect. The ones that were shot at a just-slightly-wrong shutter speed, or where focus was missed by a few inches, or where the subject clips the frame, or where motion blur renders detail nearly unrecognizable.
I’m thinking of those photos now. They float into my mind effortlessly – a haphazardly shot workman in a dripping-with-steam Chinatown basement; my daughter, spinning in the dark of the New England Aquarium; a cityscape at night, shot handheld without a tripod; a window-lit portrait made with a Polaroid SX70 and a nearly dead pack of film which caused the shutter to hang open. These are the kind of photos that I love. These are the photos I want to make.
Follow James on Twitter and follow Casual Photophile on Facebook and Instagram
[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]