Aaron C. Greenman: Japonisme and the Aesthetics of Photography

As many of us know, and many of us will discover in our own lifetimes, Japan is a place existing within its own unique sense of rhythm. Perhaps no where is there a country so at once embracing and creating the future while at the same time eying and honoring its past. On travels in Japan, I have always been struck by the distinctly non-Western approach to the collective, an awareness of how the individual exists within (and often subjugates oneself to) a broader society.

The aesthetics of Japanese painting and other arts have been celebrated throughout the past two centuries, with Europe’s impressionists most notably embracing “Japonisme” in the late 19th century. Demonstrations of the Japanese sensibility during the history of photography have been somewhat less common, despite the country’s leading role in the design and manufacture of photographic equipment and the domestic popularity of the craft.

There are several key concepts to Japanese design, many of which subconsciously inform photographers and can help us all to make more images of lasting value:

  • Enso Fukinsei — Develop compositional balance through asymmetry
  • Shizen — Preserve the naturalness of the scene
  • Yugen  — Suggest rather than reveal
  • Kanso — Eliminate the unnecessary
  • Shibumi — Convey elegant simplicity
  • Seijaku — Express calmness

Black-and-white photography is as pure an embrace of most of these concepts as any art form – without the corruption or crutch of color, the photographer can only use light, shadow and form to generate an emotional effect. Whether in the landscape, the religions, the architecture, or the cuisine, Japan offers the disciplined eye ample temptation.

As Japan’s own Yoko Ono once reflected, “Spring passes and one remembers one’s innocence. Summer passes and one remembers one’s exuberance. Autumn passes and one remembers one’s reverence. Winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance.”

- Aaron C. Greenman

Aaron C. Greenman has been a photographer for over 25 years and has lived and worked on four continents. He has previously been profiled on The Leica Camera Blog for his work in India, East Africa, Israel, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia, and throughout Western Europe. More of his images can be viewed at acuitycolorgrain.com and his first monograph is now available for the iPad.