What did Japanese art do to photography: Part 2
Japanese woodblock prints
Why do we photograph random groups of people?
Have you ever wondered why street photography has become so popular? Why are there endless shots of people in bus windows, waiting for trains, or walking to work? Have we all taken a recent interest in urban planning, mass transit, or the happiness of employees? Probably not.
This love of the ordinary came in large part from Japanese art. It was imported from Japan to Europe and then around the globe like many cultural trends…which is to say by accident.
The influence of Japanese art and objects came into Europe through its ports. From Chinoiserie furniture to wood block prints, a smattering of exotic objects from the East were picked up by collectors, tyrants, and artists alike. Very often disconnected from the roots that gave birth to these Eastern treasures, they were interpreted out of context. Why? Because in the 1800’s there were no direct flights to Narita. If you wanted to visit Japan, you were in for a long haul. This meant Europeans would crack open a crate and make heads or tails of the stuff without a Japanese expert to explain it to them. Something was bound to get lost in translation. And as these visual trends passed through painting and into photography, once again they did not get much of an introduction.
Visual strategies like anonymous group street paintings influenced photographers like Werner Biscof and Cartier-Bresson. And while their exact meaning was not always divulged to the viewers, their tactics stuck. Fast forward fifty years and there are more group shots taken on the street in any one day than exist in the history of European art.
Fortunately today, we can fly directly to Japan and see first hand the Zen philosophy and aesthetics that defined the Japanese wood block. In this exploration, the roots of everyday street shots becomes crystal clear.
Zen out of context is Street Photography
Zen Buddhism has a few basic tenets. Without laying out all the beliefs, it is a practice where worldly possessions are renounced, one aims to do no harm and to live in the present. What does this look like in real life? Well a monk would typically own a three bowls, two robes, and a pair of sandals. Thats it. It is a life of observation and simplicity.
One of Zen master Joshu’s famous koans (term for a Zen riddle) was:
“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
Get the idea?…We are not talking about a group of people who were too into entertainment. The sound of water, the smell of a ripe persimmon or the hiss of incense burning out could be the highlights of the week. But imbedded in the daily life of a monk is a philosophical appreciation for the simple things in life.
Monastic life seeped into the population of Japan after the 1200’s when Buddhism was brought over from China. And it can be seen in a pervasive sensitivity to things that Europe would have considered anti-climactic.
When Jean Francois Millet, a French painter, started painting pictures of peasants in the 1800’s, people thought he was mad. These were not subjects worth of painting. They were neither heroic or biblical. They were rather anti-climatic, ordinary, and quiet. But it’s curious to imagine how his work would have been received in Japan. It seems in hindsight that he was ahead of his time or born in the wrong country.
Everyday Street Scenes
In Japan, there was an interest in the ordinary. People going to the market, a group running across a bridge in the rain, or a lonely person just strolling down a side street were fair game. There are a few things to consider when looking at the Japanese Wood blocks that laid the ground work for much of what we see in Street Photography. Unlike the trends that have dominated travel photography for years (think National Geographic) was a deliberate aversion to the exotic. The more ordinary the better. When tracing the influence of the wood block on photography consider these overlapping traits.
- The Group. If there are pictures of people, they are anonymous. These are not pictures of specific sitters or models. And more often if they are in groups, all figures are equal.
- The Street. The scenes are derived from typical, working class neighborhoods. Sometimes there are temples and castles in the background, but very often there is a humility about the scenes.
- Scale. Figures are included for scale. It is not that the Japanese did not know how to do portraits. It is that the person was a part of the world around them…not a world unto themselves.
- The Weather. Every type of weather is represented in wood blocks. From a change in seasons, to rain, sleet and hail…there was no such thing as bad weather in wood block. Each change in weather represented a mood.
When we can step back from the buzz of Internet it becomes clear whether we are looking at something innovative or just a copy of a copy. It allows for us, the photographers, to look into the core of history and discern the fluff from the good stuff. That vision separates the connoisseur from the “easily wowed.”
When we can decide what is worth admiring or tossing, it allows us to form our own ideas, based in history, but without being slavish to trends. Because there is a wonderful alchemy that happens when cultures mix, but a less exciting version when the play button is stuck on repeat.
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