All images and text copyright 2016 Alan Stacy @ Yugen Photography
Searching for The Way
Even after spending 45 years learning, experimenting, and creating photographic works, I was still struggling to find my Tao — my Way — for creating a personal brand of fine art. Parallel to my photographic work I studied Asian art, particularly Japanese calligraphy and poetry (the fusion of which is haiga), feeling that there was a foundation for an artistic grounding. While I readily admit that it would take another lifetime (or two) to master any one of the Japanese arts, I feel a deep connection with the key principles of Japanese aesthetics that surround the arts of haiku, haiga, and the practice of zazen. While I still have much to learn, I have, for now, found my Tao in the aesthetic principle of yugen.
For the last few years my photographic work has been focused on applying my interpretation of the aesthetic of yugen to modern photography and bringing the resulting works into people's work-spaces, healing-spaces, art-spaces, and meditative sanctuaries. What is yugen, and why is it a key to artful interpretation of the world around us?
Yugen was an important concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics. It was first defined in the Edo period, when Japan was isolated from outside influences. The exact translation of the word depends on the context. In Chinese philosophical texts that the term was taken from, yugen meant dim, deep, or mysterious. In Japanese waka poetry, it described the subtle profundity of things that are only vaguely suggested by the poems.
Yugen is an emotional response to nature, art, and thus life. It represents an aesthetic that is not often "named" or even considered by Western artists, yet exists at times in all of us. Yugen is the appreciation of the emotions related to the observation of nature and art. It is akin to the appreciation of wabi-sabi, which is a better known principle in the West, albeit warped by commercialism. However, the aesthetics of yugen is less concerned with physical attributes as is wabi-sabi, and more about the emotional response to the interplay of shadows and light, and how they reflect the impermanence of beauty—and of life.
While one cannot photograph yugen, the goal is to evoke the emotional response that lies within the aesthetic to an image or series of images. To me, yugen is a sense, a sight, a sound, that reveals the mystery behind the screen of sea, rock, and sky that we call this world. Yugen is the substance behind a haiku moment.The detail that requires a second look at a photograph or painting, and which draws the eye deeper into the work. It is an image that portrays karumi: "a light beauty with subtlety, such as a shallow river over a sandy bed" (Basho). Yugen suggests that which is beyond what can be articulated, but is not an allusion to another world. It is about this world, this experience. "To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds, and subtle shadows of bamboo on bamboo" (Zeami Motokiyo). These are the types of experiences and images that create the subtle feelings of yugen. It is an extension of mono no aware, another deeply held and unique emotional response to the delicious mix of natural beauty and the knowledge of its impermanence.
Ghost Flowers Collection
The is a subset of the Yugen Photography portfolio. For the last year I have been focused on working with high-resolution images of flower blossoms. The purpose is to reveal their inner yugen, the uniqueness of these often tiny (dime/quarter-sized) creations of nature that are here for a brief time and then return to Gaia. The Japanese have long considered the cherry blossom as a perfect symbol of impermanence. Every blossom is different, but in their springtime frenzy of bloom, multitudes of petals on branches blend like dabs of paint in an Impressionist painting, no single one distinguishable — until they take flight, floating back to the earth, becoming individuals again. When seen singly, blossoms become something else altogether. Enlarged, detailed, unfolded, the blossoms reveal the patterns and intricate structures regularly seen by bees, birds, and creatures that depend on plants for life, yet are often visually glossed-over by the very beings that cultivate them. Upon expending their energy of attraction, fertilized or not, the blossom slowly fades, displaying the beauty of impermanence. From bud to bloom to seed, therein lies the reveal of Ghost Flowers.
Ghost Flowers Process
The Ghost Flowers series started with a project in winter when an amaryllis was blooming, bringing a daily play of life to our chilly living room. From stalk and bud to a slowly unfolding bloom, to its peak display of white petals and vivid pistils and stamens, through its slow fade to — not death — but renewal. It was this daily and close-up experience that led me to photograph the amaryllis bloom through its cycle and begin thinking, as spring approached in California, how the other blossoms around our coastal community could be captured. In order to get up close and very personal with the blossoms, many of which were very small and fragile, I decided to use a flatbed scanner instead of a DSLR with macro-lens. This choice resulted in two fortuitous results that make the Ghost Flowers Collection convey the feelings associated with yugen.
Ghost Flower Techniques
The scanner has a different range of sensitivity to colors than the camera, so the details and coloration of the blossom images often looked very different than what the human eye (or camera sensor) records. Details that were invisible to the eye popped out in the scan at 1200dpi. Veins of color ran through what were apparently pure white petals. Whites turned rich gold. Tiny grains of pollen that appear as dust specks become vibrant yellow, red, and orange structures. Even previously unnoticed aphids and their kin popped out from the petal's intricate field of textures and gradations of colors, where they stalked their world's landscape.
The scanner also has a narrow depth of field, as well as a shallow range of light that is recorded by the passing sensor. This results in an image that has a very specific focal plane both in terms of sharpness and lighting. Depending on the structure and depth of the blossom, multiple points of interest are in sharp very detailed focus, while the rest of the structure falls away quickly into shadows and mystery. Colors go from vivid to subdued within a few millimeters, giving the subject all the more ability to invoke yugen. A crisp petal catches the eye while the fading light of the interior draws the viewer in, searching for details that may or may not be revealed—the inner yugen. Altering the position of a blossom on the scanner bed often reveals nuances that were hidden by shadows cast by petals, or changes textures as a petal bends inward to the center or curls around its neighbor, thus creating a new reveal of the same blossom.
As the range of textures, colors, patterns, and shapes revealed by the "scanography" imaging process expands, the post-processing of the blossom scans require individual finessing to reveal interesting details, or to lay a textured curtain over regions to increase the mystery. This, of course, is where the gift of digital manipulation plays out its magic. Enhancing details emphasizes petal veins and pollen granules. Increasing the image contrast pops the stamen while subduing the leaf. Adding a overlay texture veils the exuberant petal while enhancing the colors flowing down into the shadowy interior.
Ghost Flower Textures
A final step in the composition is to apply a complimentary or contrasting background and border that becomes an integral part of the print. I work with scans of wood, washi, fabric, metal, stone, and paint as overlays, to surround the ghost flower and add the final hint of mystery and color. The same image surrounded by different textures and colors from the non-plant world can produce startlingly different results in a composition.
Ghost Flower Prints
Printing the ghost flower series offers additional choices as to how the final composition appears and how it will fit into its final home — whether office, bedroom, meditation sanctuary, or even outside on a shaded porch. The first approach is to C-Print the image on paper for a subtle presentation to be framed with wood or metal as the client wishes. An increasingly popular print method is to use an aluminum substrate and dye transfer the image in vivid colors. The aluminum print is very durable — it can be hung outside in the shade and exposed to the weather — and the increased reflectivity enhances the depth of colors, which subtly change depending on the amount of illumination.
Size is the final aspect that affects the impact of the Ghost Flower images. All the compositions start in my mind as 20x20", a good size for most personal rooms. 24x24" prints increase the drama and help them standout in hallways and larger office spaces. For small rooms and offices, the 18x18" size work well as the viewing distance is typically less than 3 feet. The triptychs are an impressive 20x30" and—particularly in the aluminum prints—make a dramatic visual statement.
Where can Ghost Flowers live? In what habitats do yugen-themed images thrive? While art representing the natural world can "fit" into almost any space, artists—intentionally or not—often imbue their work with qualities that work best in certain habitats. The portrayal of yugen in the Ghost Flower Collection makes the images particularly appropriate for contemplative and healing spaces. (See some examples here.)
Yugen in Sanctuaries
Before the Ghost Flowers Collection, I designed a series of hanging prints for the meditative sanctuary, where one goes to meditate, dream, nap, and imagine. The series combined photographic images, calligraphy, and poems (personal haiku, or favorite poems from the masters such as Robinson Jeffers). The haiga compositions provide contemplative visuals for the tea room, mediation room, or personal study. In the same way, the Ghost Flower Collection provides gateways to yugen for these special environments, where the focus on florals brings calmness, mindfulness, and healing thoughts for the attentive observer.
Ghost Flowers in Healing Spaces
When we visit friends who are in ill health, the most frequent gift is flowers. A living plant in bloom or an arrangement of cut blossoms immediately changes the perception of how we feel. Most medical facilities I've visited incorporate gardens and green spaces within courtyards along with water features. These spaces have been proven to lift spirits and energize patients as well as their visitors. Healthcare workers benefit as well from breaks that unite them again with the living world.
The touch of yugen in the Ghost Flower Collection can give a healing patient a deeper connection with the visual benefits of blossoms. The larger than life intimate portraits of flowers highlighting the walls of interior spaces, hallways, and rooms that do not have the benefits of exterior views brings the mental refresh of the garden to the patient. The hint of mystery in the Ghost Flowers keeps the eye from glossing over the image, bringing the attention back to the natural world, and away from inner pain and anxiety. The crisp details, often fading into shadow, provide a resting place for the eye and a focal point for contemplation allowing the mind to ease away from anxiety.
Yugen in Work Spaces
Unless an employee is very lucky, the typical work space/office probably doesn't have a view of gardens, trees, flowers, or much of anything that relates to the natural world. Cubical-villes are still the norm and not an exception in many corporate buildings. City highrise offices may offer far-off glimpses of parks, but more often views of just another building. Abstract corporate art can help alleviate the blandness of meeting rooms, long hallways, and mingling places but once viewed are easily glossed over as people hurry to meet deadlines or gather for the next meeting. Perhaps the goal then is too bring the outside inside whenever possible. And while vivid landscape and seascape imagery can help, they do little to bring nature closer, only make it appear as far off as it really is to the person in an office building.
The Ghost Flower Collection helps brings the natural world eye to eye with the office worker. Once again, the yugen-infused nature of the collection combines intricate detail with shadows sliding into mystery, enticing the eye to settle, relax, and connect. Hung as large images (24x24", 30x30"), especially in vivid and durable aluminum prints, Ghost Flowers literally enliven the walls of work spaces to help people reconnect with nature during their busy days.
The rain has stopped, the clouds have drifted away,
and the weather is clear again.
If your heart is pure, then all things in your world are pure.
Abandon this fleeting world, abandon yourself,
Then the moon and the flowers will guide you along the Way.