First published in Japanese in 1933, In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki is a testimony to the timelessness of Japanese aesthetics. It explores the aesthetics of shadows and celebrates the ambiguity and sublety of color, shade, texture, and tone.
Tanizaki examines the singular standards of Japanese aesthetics and their stark contrast with the value systems of the industrialized West. He writes:
“We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light, and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”
Other breath-taking descriptions found in the essay include the smoky patina of a worn silver sake cup, the sheen of lacquer reflecting a wavering candlelight, the meditative experience of eating a yokan from a lacquer dish as if the very darkness of the room were melting on the tongue, and sushi wrapped in a persimmon leaf. It reads like an exercise in mindfulness.
In traditional Japanese aesthetics, shadow plays a practical and symbolic role, with specific ritual values sanctioned by time and custom. Light is its enemy, being at the same time a necessary complement.
Light and shadow are antithetical values in permanent conflict, but essential for the existence of their opposite and between them the world is divided. Shadow – for Tanizaki- enhances the object or its surroundings, especially in architecture, providing ambiguity and mystery. Shadow ennobles the object and distinguishes it; is enigmatic, promotes silence and reflection, brings peace, serenity and calm. With a pleasant, colloquial, conversational style, Tanizaki displays his singular praise. His detailed and meticulous attention is fascinating.
What if we apply Tanozaki’s philosophy to our creative work?
What would it look like if we tried to bring more stillness in our photographs, painstaking attention to detail, and focused more on the shadows rather than the light?
George Kroustallis // Minorstep