If you’re a smartphone user, you may have noticed the plethora of apps for your phone that allow you to process the photos you take on it. Among the most popular apps are FX PhotoStudio and Hipstamatic. For the average user (that would be most of us), the appeal of these apps is their ability to transform regular, run of the mill digital pics into weathered and vintage-looking ones. You know the aesthetic: photos in sepia tones, photos that are slightly faded or distressed or washed out or weathered, photos that look like Polaroids from the 1970s or even like hand-drawn charcoal renderings. Here is the look I am talking about:
In his book Wabi-Sabi (1994/2008), Leonard Koren outlines the aesthetics of the imperfect, the impermanent, and the incomplete via the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi. Koren describes wabi-sabi as a “fragile aesthetic ideology” and “nature-based aesthetic paradigm” for creating “beautiful things without getting caught up in the dispiriting materialism that usually surrounds such creative acts” (9). The first recorded instance of the wabi-sabi aesthetic is found in the Japanese tea ceremony circa the fifteenth century. It was at this time that a Zen monk named Murata Shuko (1423-1502) used locally made and humble utensils in his ceremony, eschewing the “perfect” aesthetic “associated with ownership of elegant foreign-made tea-related objects” (32) that was fashionable at the time. So, things wabi-sabi, notes Koren, take their cue from nature, foregrounding “raw texture and rough tactile sensation” (68) and often have “a vague, blurry or attenuated quality” (71). Wabi-sabi would seem the exact opposite of mid- to late-20th century Modernism too. For Koren, things wabi-sabi reflect a harmonious—if not always ‘pretty’ as conventionally understood—relationship with the rhythms and processes of the natural world and everyday human use:
“Things wabi-sabi are expressions of time frozen. They are made of materials that are visibly vulnerable to the effects of weathering and human treatment. They record the sun, wind, rain, heat, and cold in a language of discoloration, rust, tarnish, stain, warping, shrinking, shriveling, and cracking. Their nicks, chips, bruises, scars, dents, peeing, and other forms of attrition are a testament to histories of use and misuse. Though things wabi-sabi may be on the point of dematerialization (or materialization)—extremely faint, fragile, or desiccated—they still possess an undiminished poise and strength of character” (62).
I think Koren’s work helps explain the allure of making digital photos look old and beaten up. It’s as if we know what we’re missing with the digital, and apps like PhotoStudio and Hipstamatic are opportunities to make things look and feel more natural, more wabi-sabi.
And this aesthetic doesn’t just apply in digital photography. In 21st-century sound recording practice, musicians go to great lengths to make their music sound old, seeking out vintage microphones and analog processing gear to help them on their quest to “warm up” the digital. There are also software programs such as iZotope’s Trash that allow you to add sonic “dirt” or static to your sound. It all adds up to a virtual distressing—making the sounds sound a little more like they’ve been lying around for a while, a little more wabi-sabi.
Which gets me wondering about why we fetishize “old”-sounding sound. Is it because it’s somehow a talisman of realness, of authentic experience? Take that record static sound, for example. Static indexes the noise of old records, perhaps culled from an old collection that is itself important in some way to the listener because it represents the past. And try this thought experiment: recall some very old jazz in your mind’s ear and see if you don’t hear along with the tunes some record static too.