IN CONVERSATION WITH: PHOTOGRAPHER DAMIEN DREW, AND HIS WABI SABI SERIES

IN CONVERSATION WITH: PHOTOGRAPHER DAMIEN DREW, AND HIS WABI SABI SERIES


“We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive lustre to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity. . . . we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colours and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them."


- Jun’ichiro Tanizaki writes ‘In Praise of Shadows’ (1933)

on the Japanese sensibility of ‘Sabi’

There is something so inherently profound about beauty in decay; it has a lot to do with how we define it, how we spot it, how we open ourselves up to it and the way in which we present this idea of beauty beyond an aesthetic and beautiful appearance.



Shin-Koiwa, Tokyo 2015 / Kasama, Ibaraki, 2006 The lurid pink shopfront of a music school in old town Shin-Koiwa, Tokyo. Hostesses of the Kasama Himatsuri (Fire Festival) near Mito City walk alongside a bank of blossoms.

It was an 'ah-ha' moment when I came across Damien Drew's work, Wabi-Sabi, in the Black Eye Gallery. To me his work represents an idea of enduring beauty and curiosity, and I believe the beauty of his work to lie in the apparent effortlessness and simplicity of it. But there's more than meets the eye, and it's only when we develop the capacity to see this, that the true effortlessness of his work delivers. What Damien chooses to see and focus on in each frame and the way in which this emerges in post production, shows a much deeper perspective through which he sees the world than perhaps you and I do.


Mesmerised by the beauty of his photographs, I interviewed Damien on his photography and practise, delving into the idea of surrendering to our deep intuition and work - something that is inherently important as a creative.


"In a world that is increasingly homogenised through global retail chains, the air of neglect and decay of these streetscapes belie a rare beauty. These images seek to document that which is temporary and to celebrate its beauty in turn.


The viewer is invited to consider details and qualities in these paired scenes that may be inconspicuous, congruent or contrasting, in the knowledge that all is passing."


- Damien Drew, on Wabi-sabi





[TLSE] Tell us a bit about yourself...who is Damien Drew?


[DAMIEN] I studied Architecture and have been working in the film industry for over two decades, but it's only in recent years that I've started sharing my personal photography work.


First with an exhibition and book titled ‘Everywhere was Wherever’ in 2015, and more recently with an exhibition and artist book titled ‘Wabi-Sabi’. The former was a collection of stills from a trans-American motorcycle trip and the latter a visual meditation on the Japanese aesthetic concept ‘Wabi-Sabi’ which might be loosely defined as ‘beauty in decay’. I started shooting 35mm film when I pinched my mother’s Canon AT-1 as a teenager, and it is fascinating to see today the resurgence in passion for all things analog. Personally I still love the delayed gratification of shooting film and the inherent value one tends to place on each frame. Digital photography is much less tangible but also has its advantages. I use various cameras today as circumstance dictates but I like the adage that “the best camera is the one you have with you”.


Some of my favourite images have been captured on a Contax T2 point and shoot as there is no need to get caught up in technical considerations. Photography is reduced to composition and timing. I have recently returned to Australia after 15mths in New Zealand and China as Art Director on Disney’s live action ‘Mulan’ directed by Niki Caro. The majority of our set builds were completed in Auckland, New Zealand. The film also took us to some incredible locations throughout NZ and China and I am confident it will be a striking piece of cinema. I particularly love the travel aspect to my work and there are some, albeit rare opportunities, for personal photography.



Does serendipity play a part in your work? 


There is definitely an element of luck or chance in photography. It is more critical in ‘street’ photography where one is looking for unusual or creative intersections of elements, people and place. Much of my work to date is static architectural compositions but in the 'Wabi-Sabi’ series these were paired with more casual vignettes of daily life in Japan, where the timing of the moment was essential to the image.


Serendipity is one thing but the ability to recognise these moments and get one’s camera to your eye before they pass can be even more challenging. Some street photographers have an innate skill in this department. Joel Meyerowitz and Willian Eggleston are two of my personal favourites but there are some contemporary artists like Peter Kool and Vineet Vohra who have an incredible sense of timing and accompanying humour. Henri Cartier Bresson is the inimitable forebear of all of these.



Shin-Koiwa, Tokyo, 2015 / Naoshima, Kagawa, 2016 Two shopfronts, their awnings and signage missing, sit vacant in suburban Tokyo. An umbrella hints at possible occupancy. The faded checks of the upholstery on the Naoshima Island ferry echo the tile patterns and stillness of the shopfronts opposite.

How do you surrender to your intuition when shooting your work? 


I think it is partly intuition and also repeated exposure to places and situations that conditions you to a ‘way of seeing’. Ideally one endeavours to come up with a unique way of seeing and capturing the world but it is also difficult to avoid familiar tropes, even unconsciously.


Personally I most love to walk through an unfamiliar city and respond to what unfolds for me. Some espouse that you must have a clear theme or idea underpinning a body of work but maybe it is enough to simply witness intuitively what you experience. A visual journal of sorts.



Your work often asks its viewers to pay attention to beauty in scenes that are often lost to the untrained eye; how do you see or spot this enduring beauty?  


I particularly love the work of Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and Mitch Epstein. There have been decades of photographers capturing the mundane and the everyday and presenting these scenes in such a way that they might be considered fine art. Scenes, people and places that we might pass in our everyday experiences and otherwise never pay particular notice to. The act for me of capturing and presenting these scenes elevates them for consideration, even celebration, as we pause and view what we might otherwise have overlooked. What captures my attention might not rouse interest in another but I think that's what continues to make photography, and all art, exciting and subjective in its engagement. 




Asagaya, Tokyo 2015 / Shima River, Gunma, 2012. A tofu shop in central Tokyo has long since ceased trading and has fallen into ruin. The wheel tracks of tourists melt the snow near the Shima River Dam.

How do you define beauty? 


Beauty for me might be defined as anything that causes me to take pause, stimulates my visual sense in a pleasing way, and reminds me of the divine be it natural or man made. Beauty does not necessarily need to communicate an idea of perfection, but might also be conveyed in a moment or emotion that is more transient. The falling cherry blossom, snow melt in an alpine stream, rusting steel or a well worn journal might arouse equally as a Renaissance painting or beautifully engineered timepiece would.


In ‘Wabi-Sabi’ I sought to document and celebrate beauty in a series of diptychs of contemporary Japan. The viewer is invited to consider the details and qualities of these paired images that might at first be inconspicuous, congruent or contrasting and be prompted to find beauty in all that is temporary.




Shima Onsen, Gunma 2012 / Kodokan, Mito, Ibaraki, 2006 The contents of a vacant home in the once bustling resort town of Shima Onsen echo the lives of those who once lived there. A man visits Kodokan school, a heritage site in Mito City. He bends to secure his show amidst a sea of fallen cherry blossom.

And lastly, do you have any upcoming work?  


I am working on a couple of series that expand on my prior work, but am reticent to elaborate on these for the moment!

I hope to share more with you soon.


With that, I leave you to ponder on the words from Damien;

for aren't we all a little susceptible to looking without seeing?


Images by Damien Drew

Check out more of Damiens work HERE and Socials HERE

Words and Curated by, Isabelle Clark, TLSE

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