My latest Photo Life magazine arrived in the mail a couple days ago, and in it was a profile of a quite remarkable photographer, one Stéphan Barbery. He lives and works in Kyoto. He has clarified to me what is at least one aspect of why I am so drawn to the kanji.
I’ll let him explain in his own words, quoted from the article:
Chinese ideograms, and more particularly the regular writing style called kaisho in Japanese, are the result of several thousands of years of creation by the most beautiful and profound sprits of humanity. These geniuses worked on an object very similar to that of a photograph: a kanji moves within a frame and must make the most of balance and unbalance, symmetry, continuity and rupture, the contrast between full and empty, shadow and light, depth and form, movement and rest, micro and macro, harmony, elegance, and overall strength within the limits of this frame. All of this is contained within a single symbol that is not simply visual, but also bears meaning, often indirect – profound in its indirectness.
Learning to write kanji is more than simply becoming aware of each of the elements of a single character. It is to feel one’s point of view being transformed in the way that one perceives, evaluates, and appreciates the world.
Writing kanji involves movement: it’s about feeling the movement in your hand, in your body, like a dance that allows us to look more carefully. The photographer’s body that wanders, curious, open to being amazed, ready to be surprised, struck by beauty is not that different from the hand that holds a paintbrush and is also looking for that momentary flash, that instant.
This is not to say that his photographs all look precisely like they could be a kanji character. Some of them do; many don’t. But I think he has hit upon the heart of the kanji’s aesthetic appeal – that near infinitely varied arrangement of lines and space, all constrained by the same regular square frame, all with their own beautiful internal tension and balance.