Transience and imperfection in Jono White’s Wabi Sabi

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The past year pushed White to reflect. Despite its difficulties, 2020 incited him to rethink his practice and create a series returning to its origins

London-based photographer Jono White’s latest project stems from the notion of wabi sabi: a world view in Japanese aesthetics that centres upon the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Wabi sabi has a long history. Today, it often translates to ‘wisdom in natural simplicity’ or ‘flawed beauty’. Encountering the concept in a Daido Moriyama YouTube video, White found that wabi sabi resonated with him, life in 2020, and the struggles he was having with his practice.

“Over lockdown, I struggled with the idea of perfection in my work and it being something that lasts beyond my lifetime,” reflects White. The emergence of Covid-19, and the pause it allowed him, and others, made White realise he had lost sight of his desired aesthetic. He was no longer shooting for himself. Instead, he felt he was creating work with potential agents or editors in mind: “I realised I’d essentially lost whatever identity I’d created. I never thought I was in a rat race, but the break gave me perspective and made me question what I was chasing.”

© Jono White.

The revelation incited him to return to the kind of work that had drawn him to the medium; “something that didn’t take itself so seriously”. However, the resulting project, Wabi Sabi, is replete with nostalgia and emotion, despite its playful format. Centring upon portraits of friends from his new and old portfolios, White prints the images onto office sticker labels, delicately arranging these onto separate pieces of paper. “I wanted portraits of friends, which were either vibrant or carried some weight emotionally,” he says. 

One image (featured) depicts his wife, Alice, moments after they’d argued; tears sliding down her cheeks. “She’s crying because of something I said. I found it interesting when peeling away the stickers that it made me regard the photo and the moment in a different way. It reminded me of the David Hockney collages; how they draw you into the picture by focusing on individual frames. And that perhaps you would not give as much time to these if presented with the same subject as a single shot.”

© Jono White.

Other images return to the aesthetic he honed at the start of his career. White began by photographing musician friends on tour, most often in darkened rooms; too dark to shoot at the speed he wanted. “Or something would happen so quickly I couldn’t adjust the settings to get it right,” he says. Consequently, the images were often blurred and out of focus. “[It was these] I liked the most because they spoke more about the moment than a perfectly composed image ever could. Over time I guess it became part of my ‘style’. But, when I started doing more editorial and commercial work, this became more and more diluted.”  

For a few months, White did not touch a camera; the space to think and reflect forced on him by Covid-19 resulted in him rethinking his work completely. “It’s a weird one because I’ve never wanted to get out and shoot more, but I’ve never felt so trapped and unable to do so,” he says. White will now focus more on documentary image-making, leaving London to explore stories and communities beyond the city. In a sense, he has broken apart his practice in a moment of creative renewal; dissecting his relationship to the medium in a manner that reflects the fragmented, yet beautiful, images that compose Wabi Sabi.

© Jono White.

See more of Jono White’s work here.