“It is like an autumn evening under a colorless expanse of silent sky. Somehow, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably.”
Kamo no Chōmei, An Account of my Hut, 1212
Many aesthetic terms and concepts are elusive. That might be because they often seem to stem from emotion first and only afterwards are translated into concepts. Something, we can’t quite put our finger on and still can’t resist to try. And while the concepts often seem culture-bound the underlying sentiments, I believe, often are universal.
One of the most elusive aesthetic concepts I have encountered is the notion described in the quote above and called in Japanese “yūgen”.
Yūgen has been translated variously as “mysteriously deep and profound” or “profound grace”. The term came first up as an aesthetic quality of poetry during the Heian period. Its most significant use, however, has been much later in the 14th century as an aesthetic program for the Noh theater. As such it has been extensively discussed by the grand master of Noh, Zeami Motokiyo.
To me, however, it is most striking that whenever yūgen is described (like in the quote from Kamo or Zeami’s writings), it is not explained as a theoretical framework, but through visual imagery. This is the same approach as when we state that a “picture says more than thousand words”. It is an acknowledgement that we seemingly process perception of our environment on different pathways. One that is analytical and intellectual and using language (either words or mathematics) as its tool. But then there is this other pathway seemingly going from our vision directly to our emotion and touches our intuition. Yūgen is all about this second pathway and about not trying to be explicit. That is meant with “mysteriously deep”: not everything is said, but rather only suggested and remains mysterious and outside of analytical treatment. The rather odd phrase in Kamo’s quote “as if for some reason that we should be able to recall” tells us, I think, that we have a second pool of memory, one that is accessible like our memory of facts and reason, but they are not the same.
Translated into Western ways of thinking I think yūgen means “by visual means speaking to this (unconscious) pool of emotions and memories”. A striking example has for me always been Steve McCurry’s picture of Sharbat Gula, the “Afghan Girl“. Between Sharbat’s eyes, facial expression and her torn clothes more is told about the human impact of war and being a refugee than an analytical text could have achieved.
For the photographer, the big question remains how to get there. I think the bad news is that this is almost impossible to teach. Bruce Barnbaum once wrote that you can only successfully photograph what you care about. I could bet that Steve McCurry was as struck by Sharbat’s eyes as we are. His mastery was to frame her in a way to emphasize what he saw. But it is this deep emotional engagement by the photographer that, while not guaranteeing a good picture, is the absolute pre-condition for any really successful photograph. But one cannot be tought to be engaged; each artist has to reach into him/herself to this pool of values, memories and emotions.
People outside the profession often can’t believe how much in a hurry (and sometimes stressed out) landscape photographers can be. After all, the landscape doesn’t walk away, does it? That is true, but light and weather do and often quickly. The true reason, however, that I rarely manage longer than two-hour shooting sessions is the emotional drain that can be equally exhausting. But what yūgen ultimately tells us is that we can harvest only in a picture what we emotionally have invested before. If we simplify yūgen to “speaking to the viewers heart” that is not possible through mere trickery by photographer. It requires instead that the photographer firsthonestly goes to that emotional place where he wants the viewer to be. For me yūgen is therefore not only an aesthetic concept, but the ultimate aspiration and challenge.