Japanese Aesthetics And Photography
This much admired work was written in 1933 by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki as a hymn of praise to traditional Japanese aesthetics and might still be profitably read by the 21st century photographer.
Tanizaki’s theme is the importance of shadow in aesthetic appreciation and its disappearance under the glare of modern electric lighting. The flicker of candlelight, the half-light from the shoji (the traditional paper screen), the dim glow of coals from the stove, glistening black lacquer – all have been destroyed by modern lighting. There was a moment of trance, he wrote, when he raised that lacquered bowl of dark soup to his lips, “a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark.” Japanese cooking he says is “inseparable from darkness” and the beauty of a Japanese room depends on the interplay of dark and light shadow. He evokes the experience of tasting a yokan, a traditional Japanese confection: “You take its cool, smooth substance into your mouth and it is as if the very darkness of the room were melting.”
It is a beautiful essay and to read it is to imagine a tonal world that is very different from the one we inhabit now. Look around our towns and cities: lighting is a kind of fetish. It is not there to aid progress round the streets anymore nor to illuminate destinations. Its purpose is to repel shadow – metaphorically, perhaps, to blot out what we do not wish to consider in our own psyche.
In photography, is it any coincidence that the subtle depiction of black and white shades which was once our photographic world has all but disappeared before the emergence of the backlit digital image? Digital display – the adverts, the computer screens, the photographic projection in all its forms - has obliterated the pale washes of the analogue world. Is this not the photographic consequence of what Tanizaki was writing about in 1933? Have we not created in digital display a harsh coating which in fact obscures the very quality we are trying to reveal in our photographs?