The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi encourages an embracing of the world’s imperfection, an acceptance of life’s transience, and an appreciation of existence as a state of flux. It is a world view that has proved powerfully influential for many artists, among them Auckland-based photographer Emma Bass, whose current botanical art project, Imperfect, has firm roots in the Buddhism-based principles. The project, comprising well over 100 floral images and still in strong bloom, has provided immense gratification to its creator, but it’s clear for Bass the ethos of wabi-sabi goes well beyond this particular project: she is a photographer who thrives in flux.
Known primarily as a commercial photographer, Bass has amassed a diverse portfolio over the course of her career. Any New Zealander to achieve the rank of celebrity — from sporting greats like Jonah Lomu, to screen stars like Lucy Lawless, through to national heroes such as Sir Edmund Hillary — has likely spent time in front of the photographer’s lens. She has created distinctive editorial spreads for most of the country’s magazines of note, including The Listener, North and South, Metro, Life and Leisure, Fashion Quarterly, and Cleo, to name a few. And she’s turned her hand to all manner of subjects, including people, buildings, food, and art.
“I think I created an eclectic portfolio, but it was a portfolio of work that I was totally passionate about,” Bass explains to me as we sit enjoying the early afternoon sunshine flooding into her family home-cum-studio. “I wasn’t trying to get a certain type of work, I was just presenting who I was, and that somehow got people interested in what I did. And I was able to apply that to a lot of different, diverse fields.”
Bass began her professional life as a nurse, working in Auckland Hospital’s intensive care ward, a role in which she learned valuable people skills while caring for patients in often dire situations. While the job appealed to her compassionate nature, growing frustration with bureaucracy and a feeling of underappreciation drove her instead into the creative embrace of photography at the age of 25.
“I wanted to do something that made my heart sing. Even though I loved being a nurse, I got to the point where there was something inside me that had to be fulfilled, and it wasn’t being fulfilled where I was.” The internal drive that led her to an extremely successful commercial photography career is the very same force now pulling her away from it, in pursuit of her new artistic passions. The photographer has been working on her Imperfect series for several years now, and is still very much in love with the project. The series comprises images of flowers and other plants that are past their prime, decaying, or in some way damaged. She lovingly arranges the ailing greenery in ornate white vases, placed on a simple ledge, right next to the house’s front doorway, and shoots the bouquet in resplendent natural light. The arrangements, which would usually fall well short of typical botanical beauty ideals, become a gorgeous homage to the wabi-sabi notion of impermanence, imbued with the photographer’s impeccable craft and ebullient care.
The Imperfect images have already been the subject of multiple exhibitions, as well as Bass’s first book release — an exquisitely produced hardcover created in partnership with local publisher PQ Blackwell, already on its way to selling out. Bright, blown-up prints hang in galleries in Auckland, Matakana, and Nelson, and several prints have found their way into collections. The series even made an appearance as a public time-lapse projected large onto Auckland’s Aotea Centre, the enchanting decay of a poppy arrangement looped repeatedly as part of the city’s Anzac centenary commemorations. However, it’s the 12 pieces hanging on the walls of her old workplace, Auckland Hospital, which Bass is most proud of.
“It’s wonderful, I feel like I can still be present in the hospital even though I no longer work there, the pieces are bringing joy to people’s lives, in a public space, an everyday space. It’s doing a job.” The photographer is keen to extend the therapeutic possibilities of the Imperfect series by getting prints into hospitals overseas, as well as looking at supplying copies of the book to hospices.
Across the room from where we sit chatting, two pieces from the Imperfect series happen to be propped up against the wall, handsomely framed and ready to be shipped off to some lucky buyer. Throughout the interview, time and again I find my attention involuntarily pulled to the vibrant, compelling images, and it’s not difficult to understand their soothing potential.
Just metres from the images is the humble ledge upon which the works were created. In the domestic setting it’s difficult to connect the unassuming space with the intoxicating art works it helped produce. But Bass explains that creating the pieces amidst the chaos of everyday life — sometimes calling “freeze!”, and having the household halt all activity until she shoots a few frames — makes the project all the dearer to her.
“It’s a joy; like a little meditation. It’s a moment of peace when I create them. Amongst the mayhem of family life, it has actually been a great thing.”
It is in the pandemonium of her busy family life that Bass has also discovered another creative release in the medium of mobile photography. A self-proclaimed technophobe at heart, Bass is surprised to find herself enjoying the basic, convenient, restrictive nature of her cellphone’s camera, which she has been using to quickly document moments of beauty in the bustle of the everyday.
“The phone has really sort of brought back the joy of photography for me,” she enthuses.
To date she has compiled a large library of mobile images, which she hopes to put to good use, just what that use might be, though, she’s not yet sure. But in her inimitable wabi-sabi way, this uncertainty fits easily with her busy balancing of commercial jobs, personal work, and family life. A state of flux, while daunting for some, is simply Bass’s own cheerful version of opportunity knocking.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she says, with a satisfied grin. “I’m just doing my own thing.”
This article was originally published in D-Photo Issue No. 67. Missing this copy from your collection? You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: