Photography and Sumi-e

The critique session. This is a common thing to do in photography circles. Photographers bring samples of their work and a panel of “experts” or maybe just other photographers look them over and give suggestions for improvement. The critique can be in person or there are dozens of online photo forums where members post their work for review by other members.

I think that this is mostly a photography thing. Maybe since I’m not a sculptor or a painter I’m just not in the loop, but I’ve never heard of such a thing for other art forms. What is it about photographers?

Anyway, until the other night I had never participated in a critique. I figure I’ve been taking photos for longer then I care to admit and have read a wee too many photography books for my own good so if I haven’t figured out the rule of thirds or how to use an exposure meter by now it is a lost cause. Plus, if I have got the basics down and I’m to the point that I’m flaunting “the rules” with strange, twisted, evil compositions and exposures to fit my personal vision of the world, then there is no point in asking someone else to judge what I’m doing with an eye toward some sort of improvement – I do what I do and some people will like it and some won’t.

Well, I decided to go to an “open critique for photographers” at the BookSmart Studio. It sounded pretty informal and was a chance for photographers to get together, show off their latest experiments, and swap ideas for a while. I don’t know a lot of other photographers so I thought what the heck.

There was a lot of  “I would crop it here” and “what if you darkened this area up a bit”, but for me seeing what the other photographers were doing and learning why they were doing it was the really good part. It was like going to a gallery and having the artist available for questions.

Oddly enough this leads me to my subject for today – Japanese ink painting or Sumi-e (pronounced like: sue me, eh). I’d like to apologise beforehand for my butchering of this subject. I’m no art scholar and no expert in Asian culture so please bear with me as I do my best to cover a subject that seems so simple on the surface and yet runs as deep as the human soul.

You can read about the history of Sumi-e in the wiki link above. It is an old old art form originating in China in the first century and eventually migrating to Japan around the fourteenth century.  Technically the term Sumi-e refers only to Japanese ink painting, but very often the term is used to cover many similar styles from other regions of Asia. The basics come down to the use of solid sticks of black ink ground on a stone and mixed with water in various concentrations to create subtle shades of grey applied to rice paper or silk using traditional brushes. Search Google images for examples especially by Shubun.

I’ll bet many of us have seen Sumi-e, but haven’t thought much about them. They have a distinctive look that at first glance seems very simple and sparse. Subjects are reduced to bare essentials. Often there is writing in the open areas. Westerners think they are quaint, but not very interesting.

One of the things I have always read about Sumi-e is that space is as important or perhaps more important than the objects. An intriguing idea, but what does it mean? Most descriptions of Sumi-e stop there – no explanation of how or why empty space is important. Often I think this is because the writer does not have the foggiest why; they are just repeating what others have written. This has always bothered me and recently I decided to dig a little deeper.

To a westerner, empty space is often referred to as “negative” space.

“…as defining a general composition the negative space is the area that is not the primary subject. The primary subject or object is defined by the negative space surrounding it.”Roland Lee Art Gallery

So space is merely anything that is not the primary subject. It is just a throw away – not exactly the important point we’re looking for here.

A more significant use of “negative” space can be seen in works of M.C. Escher as birds morph into fish or whatever depending on where one focuses attention. Many of his drawings blur the distinction between positive and negative space. The white areas can be negative thus defining the edges of the black areas or vice-versa. Still at any given moment we are just using one to outline the other.

One key point that is often overlooked is that ink painting is more that just a style of art. It is an excercise in meditation deeply tied to Zen Buddhism and is used as a method to teach Zen principles.

“…ink paintings are done using precise techniques … that originated among the monks of Zen Buddhist China as an alternative form of meditation, supplemental to the traditional practice of sitting, as well as an exercise in observation and poetry.” – The Japan Center

Certain aesthetic qualities would be found appealing to someone who is striving to embrace emptiness. Clutter and embellishments would be less attractive to a person who sees the void as ideal. Instead, a Zen mode of thought would lead to the appreciation of empty spaces and simplicity. It follows that another aspect of the Zen aesthetic may find beauty in unfilled space. “Rachael Dubin

Now we are getting somewhere. Space in Sumi-e is not just what’s left over after the main subject is drawn. It does not merely outline. It is something in itself. Empty space can be beautiful. It is a place to clear the mind of clutter and explore the essentials of existence.

Whether one is into Zen or not, an appreciation of emptiness can bring a much needed perspective on life. Look up into a clear night sky –  there is an awful lot of emptiness in the universe; maybe we should to get used to it. The deep desert and the far ocean are places that many find uncomfortable. I think there can even be a kind of emptiness in a deep forest.

We avoid space and emptiness whenever we can. We clutter our houses with “stuff”. We clutter our lives with activities. We fill lulls in conversation with mindless chatter…

And we always fill our photographs with the main subject. The Kodak rule is to always move in close and fill the frame. People don’t want to see space. It makes a photograph difficult to understand. We like our images plain and simple with a solid obvious subject front and center and a clear title just to be sure we don’t miss the point.

Certainly there are times when some judicious cropping is in order, but I think it is often a knee jerk response. Being a technologically derived art form, photography often leads to formulaic approaches both in the creation and in the viewing. We crop because it is a rule of good photography. All open areas are automatically cut away without a thought. After all, this is just negative space and serves no purpose other than to define the positive objects, right?

The image at the top of the post is one that I took last winter. I had printed it for a show and didn’t use it so I grabbed it and hung it up at the critique. The first response of the other photographers was to crop the space off the top – not a second’s hesitation. It may be hard to tell from a web based image rather than the hard print, but I felt that the cropping changed the image immensely. I have included a cropped version for comparison.

The acid test was to ask my wife which she preferred. She normally never agrees with me on anything artistic, but this time she did. She felt that removing the darkness at the top took away a sense of height that pulled the building upwards. The cropped version makes the building look short and squat.

I would take it further. The building in the photo is a call box/control booth at the local canal lock at night during the winter. The place was quiet, dark, cold, and deserted. The canal is drained and shut down during the winter. The only sound was a small unseen stream of water lightly hissing through a gap in the lock doors. Ice covered what little open water lay in the bottom of the canal. No one was there to man the controls. No one was going to call from their boat to have the locks opened. The huge gears sat silent – frozen in more ways than one.

I feel that the black sky above the building not only adds an element of height, but also is an essential element of the place. Quietness, rest, poise, balance, isolation, anticipation, flight can all be found in that blank space. The original image is really about the space and the feel of the place. It is the experience that I felt being there.

The cropped version is about the building. The building is nothing. It is just a building. It might still be a nice photo, but it doesn’t convey anything beyond the colors and the geometric shapes.

Maybe showing a single photo was not a fair test. Maybe if I had put up several that I took that night a theme would have emerged. The final image is another that I took of that building (so to speak). Maybe I should have added even more space to make the point more obvious.



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8 Responses to “Photography and Sumi-e”

  1. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    Great discussion… This is a topic with a lot of depth. That sense of space is so much a part of your work. Your photo at the top is much more appealing to me for the reasons you mention.

    The painting group I used to belong to did similar critiques to the sort you describe at some photography gatherings, although I think more latitude in the formulas was granted in the painting context. I know at the photo club where my wife goes, they have visiting judges who come in and critique members’ photos. If they’re not a good judge then the critiques can be very… one-dimensional.

    For instance the rule of thirds is used so much now that a deliberate placement on the very edge of the picture space can give us a fresh view — but the mavens at the photography club may object.

    One source on painting composition pointed out that depicting space and distance on one side of a painting can balance the heaviness of a more obvious mass of trees or buildings or hills on the other. The sumi-e painting you show seems to have some of that, in addition to the more spiritual realms of impermanence.


  2. forestrat Says:

    I do tend to leave a lot of space in my photos these days, especially when working at night. Black space seems easier to use in photography than white space. It is a little tricky to produce large areas of blank white without things looking like they are just over exposed. I am trying to do some high key images with plenty of white space instead of my usual low key stuff.


  3. flandrumhill Says:

    An excellent post.

    I think critiques are very helpful if participants feel safe enough with one another to be honest. Sometimes we’re just too close to our work and need that other eye to improve our vision.

    So many of Escher’s drawings and tessellations inspire us to look at negative space in a new way. As in life, what we consider positive or negative is indeed just a matter of where we choose to put our focus.

    Back when I was an art student, I recall a number of us being in awe of the awareness and care given to each brush stroke in a Sumi-e painting, and how that contrasted with our thoughtless method of covering one stroke of acrylic paint with several others until somewhat satisfied with the result.

    Your post reminded me of these lines from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea:

    “One cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach. One can collect only a few, and they are more beautiful if they are few. Gradually, one discards and keeps just the perfect specimen. One sets it apart by itself, ringed around by space… like the island.

    For it is only framed in space that beauty blooms. Only in space are events and objects and people unique and significant – and therefore beautiful. Even small and casual things take on significance if they are washed in space, like a few autumn grasses in one corner of an Oriental painting, the rest of the page bare.”

  4. forestrat Says:

    Thanks flandrum. I love that quote.

    I asked Santa for some Sumi-e supplies and books. I’ve never been very good with drawing and painting so I’m not expecting masterpieces, but I think the attempt will teach me principles that I can use in my photography.


  5. fencer Says:

    Hi Forest Rat,

    If you have time, check out … different subject matter, but reminds me of your work… be interested to know what you think of it.


  6. Makeup Tips Says:

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  7. Boat in Rain | McGurk on Art Says:

    […]  ink on paper. I wrote a post about it way way back in 2009 over on my old ForestRat blog – Photography and Sumi-e. It’s kind of a long read. Skip down to about the sixth paragraph for info on ink […]

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