Behind the Camera: My Wabi Sabi Style

· Reading Time: 18 minutes

Welcome back for another installment of my monthly “Behind the Camera” series.  In this series, I delve a little bit into the motivations behind my photography and why I do some of the things that I do.  This month, I have decided to talk a little bit about my interest in the rusty and aged subjects that I have been shooting here of late.  I’m actually scheduled to do a webinar on this very topic later this month with Singh-Ray so this is a chance for me to start to get my ideas together on the topic.

I started photographing old barns almost immediately when I got my first camera.  In fact, the first day I went out with the intention of capturing “art” instead of just pictures, I found myself at the Old Mill in Guilford County, and also found the remnants of an old house well in the woods off of W Market St in Greensboro.  Those constituted my first images with my first “real” camera.  From there I started to concentrate more on landscapes, but if I came across a nice barn I would shoot it as well.  I read recently that old barns are a favorite subject for newbie photographers and I guess I fell right into that mold.  My primary motivation for photography was capturing the landscape though.  It just took me a while to learn how to organize things in the landscape to make a compelling image.  I think that this is why barns are a favorite subject for photographers.  There is already a point of interest in the landscape, and an anchor to capture the eye of the viewer.  My landscapes at the time looked like a layer cake with the sky above, with a fairly flat horizon and not much in the way of visual anchors to draw you in.  A barn added instant visual interest to the picture and I enjoyed that!

For years, I would go out to capture the landscape, but I would keep finding rural settings that would grab my attention more and more.  I found that I loved to see how the wood aged, and how rust would start to coat the metal roofs.  Then I found my first location with some old trucks.  I had not thought to capture vehicles before, but for some reason the rust caught my eye.  There were a total of four trucks at this particular property, three of them were stuck in the woodline, and the fourth was just on a ridge at the beginning of a clearing.  There was even a pair of tractors that I started working with in the same area.  In the end, I had a whole bunch of pictures with subjects that I had never really worked with before.  I was amazed at how much personality that the images had, and the textures of the rusted trucks added a pretty cool touch.  I was so impressed with the way one of them turned out, I actually entered it into a photo contest later that year.  It actually won a third place ribbon, but I forfeited it because I felt that the judging was flawed across all of the categories.  That is a different story altogether.  The point was, the pictures of rusted vehicles were obviously appealing on some level to others as well.

It wasn’t until I came back from a long hiatus from my photography that I started to learn why I was being drawn to rusted relics, and old barns.  I had even been drawn to rotting tree trunks over the years.  As part of my re-education in photography, I selected a lot of books to read in order to brush up on some of the new technology and techniques.  One of these books was Creative Landscapes, by Harold Davis.  In addition to hitting on lots of different elements in landscape work, he also touched on some of the concepts behind it.

Spring Cradle

The first concept that he speaks of is “Tao” which is a philosophy with roots in ancient Chinese culture.  Tao is traditionally connected with the landscape painters who seek a spiritual connection with the landscape that they are painting.  This applies to both grand landscapes as well as intimate, or even microscopic renditions of the landscape.  It was these connections to the landscape which had always drawn me to what I wanted to photograph.  I was finding myself being drawn more and more to images that I shared a emotional or spiritual connection with.  Old wood, whether it was in a natural setting as seen above, or as part of something man made, drew me in on a very deep level.  As I was reading this book, many of my motivations on photography started to make sense.

As I moved through the book, I came upon another concept from the East which really should have stumped me, but it was like a light had turned on when I read it.  The concept that the author was trying to convey was an ancient Japanese aesthetic and world view called “Wabi-sabi”.  This view accepts that everything passes, and is by nature, transient and incomplete.  Art which is based in the Wabi-sabi concepts accept that this decay and decline is beautiful.  That decay is then used as the prime vehicle for conveying the emotion in the imagery.  Simply put, “All things pass, and in their passage lies beauty.”

Under Cotton Skies

As I was finding my rhythm once again in photography, I was putting to use this newfound knowledge of Wabi-sabi and looked to strengthen my connection with what I was shooting.  I celebrated the decay that once appealed to me as just something interesting to photograph.  That decay became the main element in many of my photographs.  Barns fit that bill very well, but in no time at all, I was working on finding old cars to photograph for the same reasons.  Being a car guy at heart, I found that I was able to achieve a great level of Tao in my compositions because I already had a deep connection with these vehicles that were left derelict in yards, or in the woods.

A Rusty Streak

In the beginning, finding these old cars was quite difficult.  It usually involved a lot of luck as I was just driving around and a sharp eye looking out behind houses, and in the woods.  I found that barns were quite a bit easier as they are pretty big, and usually set fairly close to the road.  It became the thrill of the chase to find these old cars though.  Since I have been doing this type of photography, I have gotten increasingly better at spotting these old relics.  For instance, the picture above is a Pontiac which has been sitting beside this field for a number of years now.  It is visible from the highway that I use most often to get to the mountains.  I had passed it by many times before catching it one day coming home.  I had trained myself to look off to the sides of the highways, well into the yards of houses that I passed, and there it was, right beside a big white house.  I exited the highway and snaked my way back to the location and determined that the property was more than likely vacant, so I had the opportunity to check the car out.  The driver’s door was open, and the grass was completely grown up around it.  It had been here for a while, but I wasn’t sure how long.  I don’t know how I had missed it over the years, but I was glad that I had found it.  I have since been back many times to photograph it, with the most successful visit shown above.

Wide Grin

Other times, these cars are just sitting right out in the open for all to see.  In this example, the old Plymouth is sitting in a repair shop parking lot at a major intersection in Yadkin County.  I had been out driving in the area looking for some barns the first time I photographed it.  I have been back a few times and was able to take advantage of different lighting each time.  Also, each time I saw it, the car was in a different state of deterioration.  In this last visit, the trim was dangling, the wheels were removed from the front, and the windshield was broken out.  All of these elements gave more clues to the current state of affairs for the car.  It is the continued visits to this car that really fascinate me.  Whether the changes come from vandals, or parts scavenging, it shows a different character each time.

Impressive Stance

There are other times that I rely on word of mouth as to where to find these cars.  The salvage yard where I found this rotting Buick was based on a tip from a friend of mine.  I have since been to White’s Salvage yard twice to photograph the different cars in the lot.  They have a lot to choose from and every time I go there, I come back with some pretty amazing images.  The nice thing is that the owners don’t really mind that I am walking among the boneyard.  Their only request is that I do it during business hours and let them know that I am there.  I find that completely understandable.

The other end of the spectrum to finding these cars and even barns is that so many times they require entering the property to photograph them.  This is harder than it sounds, especially with me being a police officer.  I just don’t feel comfortable walking right onto private property to photograph something.  Ideally, I will be able to make contact with the property owner so that I can ask permission.  The conversation usually goes a little something like this:  “Hi, I’m a photographer and I enjoy photographing old cars and barns.  I notice that you have a ____________ in the back yard and I was wondering if you would mind if I shot a few pictures?”  The answer is typically “You want to take a picture of that old junk back there?”  We chat for a few minutes and then with any luck I will get permission to enter the property.  Other times, I am denied that permission, oftentimes before I’m ever able to ask.

Cracked but Intact

Here is one of those funny stories from my adventures searching out these old cars.  I was out driving around one Sunday and happened upon Pack’s Body Shop which had a rather large salvage yard attached to it.  It was obviously closed, but I noted that there were no fences, or other barriers in place.  There were no signs indicating that I wasn’t allowed on the property, and nothing in place that prohibited me from walking through.  I parked right up front in the parking lot to indicate that I was there, and grabbed my gear to start photographing the area.  I was out there a couple of hours that morning and had no issues at all, even with lots of cars passing by.

Several months later I returned on a Saturday and figured that I would do the same thing.  I got my gear and started to get set up near some cars up front.  This time, there was a guy that slowed to a stop in the road.  I went out to meet him and asked if he was the property owner.  He wasn’t but stated that the owner lived right down the street and that I should probably go ask him.  I could handle that, so I went down the road on foot and found the house where the owner lived.  I knocked on the door and stepped back from the door allowing a full view of myself (hey, I understand folks get apprehensive about strangers knocking).  While waiting for the door to open, I caught a sense of movement from the side of the house.  I looked over and found a gentleman coming around the corner with a gun in his hand.  OK, it wasn’t pointed at me, so I was not terribly concerned, although I was unarmed.  He inquired as to why I was there and I gave my normal speech.  He was less than impressed and said that he never wanted to see me on his property again.  I attempted to plead my case one more time, and was met with a similar reaction.  I left, and have not returned since.

That was the first time that I had been turned down for a chance to shoot on somebody’s property.  It was one that I will always remember since there was an off chance that I could have gotten shot.  Although, I am glad that it went that way rather than him finding me among the cars and shooting first and asking questions later.

There was another time that I was coming from Hanging Rock and stopped off to photograph a truck that was sitting under an overhang of an old gas station right off of the road.  There was nothing but businesses around, and it was a Sunday.  I got out and set the camera up and started to get my composition just right and I see a truck coming from a little ways down the road.  They slowed and entered the lot.  Before I could ask anything the driver asked (with his right hand conspicuously out of sight) what I was doing there.  I answered that I was photographing the truck sitting under the overhang.  His response was “Who takes pictures of things that don’t belong to them, you need to go.”  I tried to show examples of what I did, but he was not interested, and I still couldn’t see his right hand.  I figured it was time to go, so I packed up, and while loading my camera gear back in the bag he continued to question why I was there.  Knowing that there was probably a gun aimed at me, I opted not to engage in any arguments.  I got in the car and left with him following behind me for a mile or so.

Fire Prevention

On the other hand, I have had the completely opposite experience when photographing these rural scenes.  One of my favorite stories is one that happened recently in East Bend, NC, at Outlawed Restorations.  I had found this location after a full day of photography in the mountains.  It was just too good to pass up, so I pulled off to the side of the road and surveyed the scene.  There were a couple of houses that could have been attached to this property, but with the changing weather I needed to shoot fast and didn’t have much time to ask any permission.  I figured that the scenes that I wanted to shoot I could get from the street.  I started working out positions and compositions, but before long a gentleman stepped out of the shop that I had assumed was closed since it was a weekend.  I was all prepared to be told to leave, but saw him motioning me in to talk.

This was where I met Dean Cornelius and he was quite gracious about letting me onto the property to photograph whatever I wanted to.  What a nice surprise!!  He told me a little bit about the vehicles on the lot and about what he did there.  The difference being able to be on the property versus standing on the road was huge.  The picture above was shot with my 70-200mm lens zoomed in to almost 200mm to get the composition I wanted for a panorama.  Once I got onto the property, I was able to swap to my 24-70mm lens and get images like this…

Shattered Dreams

There is just no substitute for being able to get up close and personal with your subjects.  Dean and I have since formed a pretty good friendship, and I’ve been back out to his place once more for my own purposes and then was invited back for a contract shoot of a Caddi that was going up for sale.  What started out as a normal contact asking for permission has since blossomed into other opportunities. I have to say, I like these experiences much better than those where a gun is involved.

Ole Caddi at Home

Another benefit of speaking with the owners of these cars is that I get a lot of the history behind them, which aids in the spiritual connection with the subject.  I’ve talked with several folks who have their deceased loved ones vehicles on their property.  Some are destined to be restored, others are just there as a tribute and memory to somebody they have lost.  Either way, it is fascinating to me to learn about these cars and what they mean to the owners.  As a car guy, I completely understand the emotional connection that we have with our vehicles, and how those vehicles somehow become linked to us.

There are plenty of times that I am unable to make contact with the owners of the properties, and in those situations I have to make a choice.  Should I just come back another time, or try to capture something from a location that I feel comfortable in.  I’ve shot a lot from the side of the road, and I’ve ventured onto property that looks to be relatively abandoned.  Every time I do this I expect to have a property owner approach me, so I usually work fast in case I am told to leave.  I’m always very conscious of signs indicating that they don’t want anyone on the property, or fences that provide some type of barrier to the property.  Again, as a police officer, I just can’t risk a criminal charge over my photography.

Found on Roadside Dead

When it all comes down to it though, I’ve found that these rusted out cars have a soul remaining and it wants to be captured.  When I see this decaying Ford, I am transported back to a time before I was even born.  I am hearing the cheers of kids in the back seat on a family trip.  I am imagining the owner of a brand new car taking it home and polishing it.  I can imagine the lengths that the owner would go through to keep the car on the road and then finally being forced to give up the ghost leaving it in the yard, until it could be overhauled.  In a way, the car’s life flashes in front of my eyes, and I can imagine 40 or more years worth of history behind the subject that I am photographing.  It is my hope that I am sharing that same reaction with the viewers of the pictures.  It is a great case of “if that old car could talk…”

Time to Mend

The Wabi-sabi approach to photography applies to just about every aspect of my photography these days.  I might not always be photographing old rusted cars, or even barns, but I can find beauty in the decay of so many things that surround us.  This fence along the Blue Ridge Parkway illustrates that quite well.  In the middle of the Spring flowers and vibrant colors, we have a very dramatic sky that breathes life into the image.  Then there is the fence.  It has obviously seen better days and has been standing for quite some time.  Several of the boards have fallen, and what is still standing is showing signs of decay.  By definition, this really should not fit in the image, but it does.  In fact, the fence becomes the image in a way.  It is all beautiful and shows life in different stages all at the same time.

Chrome Scallop

Even in an abstract composition, I can find beauty in decay.  Here we have the side of an old Ford that has clearly been left out in the elements for some time now.  The chrome is no longer shiny, and the paint is no longer rich in color or gloss.  There is mold where Turtle Wax used to be, and pine needles where glistening reflections had once been.  To look at this pictures, you really don’t know what you are looking at, unless you are really familiar with the cars of the era, but the shapes and textures stand on their own.  There is an understated beauty to this scene even though there is a lot of deterioration going on.

Guarded and Weathered

The next time you are driving down a country road and thinking to yourself “this is such a nice road,” consider why it is a nice road.  There sure isn’t a lot of high rises, and concrete.  The cars aren’t flashy, and you will see that weathered wood and rust dominate the man made elements.  Might it be you too are enjoying the beauty is the passage of time?  We say it hearkens back to a simpler time, but I would disagree.  Sitting in your car with air conditioning and an automatic transmission whizzing down the road, are you really thinking that working on a farm is simple?  Maybe driving a car with three on the tree and an AM radio is somehow more relaxing than what you are in.  Somehow I think we are getting things confused, and we are actually seeing these things in the waning stages of life which is much simpler than when they were in full functioning trim.

For me, there is a certain quiet, calm, reverence to these old structures and cars.  I can remember the good times that were had in and around them, but not really the hard work.  I see many happy memories that I have never experienced first hand, and that helps to center me in a current world of turmoil.  I guess in a way I am capturing a fantasy image of what once was, while celebrating the life of the subject I am photographing.

Magic Bus

Another equally valid point to this type of photography is that you never know when these pieces of our collective history will be gone.  Case in point is this bus.  I have shot it a total of three times in various states of decomposition.  This was the most recent and it dates to 2014.  Shortly after I shot this bus, the property sold, and the new company that bought the building had this bus hauled off.  I don’t know of the outcome of this bus, but I do know that it will never be here to be photographed again.  My camera was able to document the last days of this bus that served proudly for a career.  With every click of the shutter, I might be taking the last picture of an object that will ever be shot.  To be that kind of historian is pretty impressive when you think about it.

Just Tired

Here is one of those pictures that documents a scene that didn’t last for another 24 hours.  Most would have passed the opportunity by, but I saw something really cool in this setting and stopped to photograph it.  I spoke with the owner and found out that there was a guy on the way to pick up the tractor to take it away later that afternoon.  This was absolutely the last chance to photograph this scene as it sat.  I found that it spoke volumes with all of the little subtle elements within the image.

I hope that I’ve opened your eyes a little bit as to why I’m drawn to these rustic scenes and rusty old cars.  I really do believe that there is a lot of beauty in them, and I really hope that I capture that beauty in a way that speaks to you.  I know of many in my audience that don’t really care for these types of images, but I know a good many are coming around to enjoy them on some level.  There is beauty at all stages of life, and we owe it to ourselves to stop and enjoy it when we can.

Until next time, enjoy the beauty that surrounds us!!  If there is anything that you would like to know about my photography, let me know.  I’m always looking for inspiration for these Behind the Camera entries.