Though it’s many years since I lived in Kyoto, I doubt I’ll ever lose my quasi-Japanese aesthetic sense. Quickly, let me declare my boorish ignorance of this topic! Nevertheless, I continue to take photos that celebrate quiet, small, half-hidden, mysterious, rough, innocent, shocking, light-hearted, peculiar kinds of beauty. Even ugly-beauty. Japan expanded my ability to see, my sense of beauty. And considering how long Japan’s philosophy and culture have endured, no wonder the Japanese aesthetic persists in my own mind, 27 years later.
Before I lived in Japan, I think more conventional items stirred my sense of beauty. A mountain, a house, a face, a painting in a frame. Things or beings that were already defined, labelled, and outlined.
Living in Japan shocked me into admiring (almost adoring) the shape and energy of a tiny weed in a broken wall, a flash of colour lit by sunshine, an energetic shadow, a flower before or after its peak. My eyes fix less on a handsome building, more on a single element such as its angles or shade or empty spaces. I lived for a while with a tea master, his partner, and some of his students. They explained the concept of wabi-sabi to start me off, and for two more years I soaked up that world of Zen, Noh, Tea, gardens…
Here’s a funny contradiction. Japan has a national list of their most beautiful views, even prescribing the exact place to stand in order to take a photo of the exact same standard view. But Japan thrives on contradictions and anomalies: they’re part of Japanese aesthetics. My tea-people taught me to enjoy contradictions, not to struggle with them.
Anyway, here are a few photos from the last week to show you what I mean. I don’t know if you’ll agree with me — but I really love my daily aesthetic adventures as I tread pretty much the same routes every day.
The weed photo is nothing special, but I just cannot resist a tiny plant forcing itself through a wall and struggling to hang on.
What charms me about this photo? Not the chair in the background. The silky look of pine when the sun shines on it. The cat caught in an odd pose, looking a bit meercattish. Those OTT peonies sprouting petals from their stamens: how dare they be so big and beautiful? And the shadows. It’s far too cluttered to reflect the Japanese aesthetic: but my appreciation was born in Kyoto.
What I love about this photo? Let me count… Three great buildings in the background, two grey males so boldly angled and a softer female companion on the right: they’re like parents overseeing the bad dad who defiled the wall with graffiti. I adore the flowers, so tiny and as white as lightning. I like the way the shapes change so clearly in this photo from top to bottom: from sharp and pointy (roofs), soft and round (bushes that I think are Pittosporum Tenuifolium or Kohuhu) and even sharper (the leaves of the New Zealand native iris, Libertia Ixioides). But a true Japanese aesthete would probably have focused on a tiny corner of this photo.
Most people know exactly why they take photos of people. But other than people, what do you like to photograph? What grabs your attention? And why?