The Photograph as Haiku

I had an unusual upbringing in the fine-art photography world, surrounded by museum masterworks collected by my parents, and always with a camera in my hand. Taught by the surrealist Jerry Uelsmann, a family friend who designed the darkroom in my home, I spent my adolescence bathed in probably-toxic chemicals; my aesthetics came from the surrealism of Uelsmann but were nurtured through the best of mid-century modernism.  

My own photography unconsciously emulated the works I had grown up with–Weston, Erwitt, Cartier-Bresson, Cunningham, and hundreds more–but I was unable to describe precisely what it was I was emulating. If you had asked me how to learn to take better photos, I would only direct you to the great street photographers of Paris in the 20th century, and say ‘look at these enough and you’ll understand.’

But in 1998 I was given some books of haiku, and I noticed that in everything I read, I could swap out the word ‘haiku’ and replace it with ‘photography’ and it nicely described what it was I did when I took photos. And when I went back to look at the collection of photographs that inspired me, I realized, inexplicably, they were ‘haiku-like’.

I discovered that it was possible to use the language and concepts I found in haiku discussions to make it clearer how to practise, how to improve, and what to aim for, in photography.

This is what brought me to haiku.

What I hadn’t considered, however, was that this worked both ways; My clear  sense  about what makes a photograph a haiku also describes what makes a written haiku haiku

The Crux of Haiku

I’ve come to recognize that unlike sonnets or limericks, haiku are more genre and less form. Apparently this is true in both Japanese and English approaches. But since clearly you can’t just do whatever you want and call it a haiku, the form is still important, even if it can be flexible. Each target attribute is a goal, but there’s poetic license about hitting them all perfectly. That’s going to be true in a photographic haiku as well.

To my thinking, the most important aspect of a haiku — the ‘thing’ that makes it haiku—are the three lines broken into two uneven parts — two lines then the twist or leap. The artistry of haiku is in the delicacy, nuance, and genius of that juxtaposition.  

These two uneven beats – a big obvious one, then something that hits you a moment later and changes how you feel about the first part – is also the defining characteristic of a photo haiku. The nature of the two beats and the leap are varied. As in written haiku, one of the beats might be out of frame and implied. There are endless clever ways to create these beats and this leapy-punchline in a photograph. But the history of photography is covered with images that do this. And the approach makes for great pictures.

This separation creates a space for the reader to inhabit. … the cut separates the haiku into its two images or elements and asks readers to puzzle-out or intuit their relationship. 

Surprisingly, many books and essays on haiku seem to gloss over the importance of the haiku’s two-part structure, or instead give it short shrift.

Miller, P., Haiku Toolbox, Modern Haiku, 48.2 (2018)


It’s a strange contrivance to take the forms of haiku and transform those to describe an image. But here’s the thing: It’s no more contrived to execute a haiku in a photograph than it is to execute a haiku in English. ‘Poetic licence’ allows for deviation around the classic form and objectives, and there is a lot of fuzzy space in the translation of the 17 Japanese sounds into English. Or an image.

Thus the 5-7-5 Debate

So what is the best translation of the musical 5-7-5 Japanese ‘on’ in a haiku? 

Looking at the inspirational photographs I saw myself emulating, I saw they had a consistency in terms of a harmonious formality, a visual simplicity of relatively few elements, naturally executed. You could tell by looking at the image that each element was there by design, in the ‘perfect’ position, purposeful, without being stiff. This is hard to do in picture taking, particularly in a moving world. And this aligned with how I felt about formality of haiku poem writing; the strict rhythm (or fixed syllables) were challenging constraints to push up against. 

A useful datapoint also comes from the Zen art of flower arranging, or ikebana, where every part of the floral creation is purposely positioned, but it still (incredibly) maintains a naturalness.  There was something of ikebana formality I saw in every Cartier-Bresson.

I’m loath to enter the written-haiku debate, nor does my opinion matter all that much. But I can say that it’s easier for me to rationalize my photos as haiku than it is to settle into my 5-7-5 haiku.

On one hand, I appreciate how making these Japanese sounds into English syllables produces something way longer and more detailed than is done in Japanese haiku, and certainly not as constrained as the artform was intended. The sense of the minimal is important to haiku. So I can totally enjoy three very short lines, stripped of effluvia, an artform like ikebana and bonsai, of subtraction. This drives my sense of photo simplicity.

On the other hand, haiku is intended to be structured, rhythmic, and musical; it asks the poet to execute within a set of constraints. This is an essential aspect of the form. Removing that constraint produces a sort of free-verse that doesn’t work for me. I need the formality, it makes writing haiku a word game: ‘can i come up with a different way to say this thing that will fit in this form?’ Consequently, I am unable to write a haiku that doesn’t fit the 5-7-5 form.  

But in all cases, the literal syllable count is never as important as the ‘2-lines/1-line’ juxtaposition and the question is delightfully moot when the objectives are translated into photography.

How Simple is Simple Enough? 

The essential characteristic of haiku is that it is as simple as necessary. The form is always doing a lot with a little. With that principle in mind I look at great photographs and notice they are exactly that – unusually, almost unnaturally, simple. Either they don’t have distracting colours, or they only have a few things in frame, or they embrace the elemental… it’s hard to say how they do it, but they each achieve a visual simplicity. You can feel their lightness.

Populist Poetry

Haiku is a poetry of the people. Haiku are democratic. Everyone should be able to find delight in a haiku. While there will always be a range of nuance and sophistication, my observation is that a good haiku is relatable and accessible. And often clever.

Don’t worry spiders
I keep house

– Basho (translated by Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku — Versions of Basho, Buson & Issa, The Ecco Press (1994)

Both written haiku and haiku photography need to be understandable, otherwise they miss.

Somewhat related, then, is that haiku photography is going to be noticing the ordinary but in remarkable or maybe beautiful ways. The photos of mine that I love the most, and some of the most memorable from the history of photography, are images of everyday life that are a little funny. This is the photojournalist and humorist Elliott Erwitt:

To me, photography is an art of observation. I found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.

– Elliott Erwitt, from ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ Interviews by Szarkowski, John (1972)

Some photography is dependent on ‘access’ – that the photographer has access to things you don’t, and you want to see them – from mountain tops, or of movie stars, or exotic locations. But a haiku photo is an everyday photo. A creation from anyone. As Erwitt said, it’s just how you chose to see things.

The Kigo Debate

Kigo is the ‘seasonal word’ — a veiled or metaphorical reference to seasons, that some argue are required in haiku. I arrive at my feeling about kigo, again in reverse, from ‘what makes a great photo?’ I found they tend to exhibit truths of human existence–scenes of everyday life. 

Consequently, I’d agree that some kigo-like constraint is required for a written haiku; and correspondingly, a haiku photograph is going to be a scene capturing the transience of humanity or reflecting on the nuanced foibles and joys of living.  

Kigo has another interpretation in photography. Because the haiku kigo connects the poem to moving time, I feel that a haiku photograph is going to leverage the ability of the camera to capture the ephemeral and constant flow of time. While every photograph is a combination of objects caught in a moment, you can still feel when a photo is more ‘object’ or more ‘moment’.  As a guide, I’d say that if the photo could have been taken by another person a little bit later, it’s more object; a moment is going to be fleeting, the ‘moment’ photograph can only have been taken by you, right then. It’s your experience, composed quickly. 


The most important characteristic of haiku is how it conveys, through implication and suggestion, a moment of keen perception and perhaps insight into nature or human nature. Haiku does not state this insight, however, but implies it. 

Welch, M. ‘Becoming a Haiku Poet’ (2003)

I’ve always felt that poor photos just showed us a thing, but better photographs let the viewer bring something to the table, and see more than what is shown. It’s inelegant to hit it on the nose. 

One should not only photograph things for what they are, but for what else they are. 

– Minor White


There’s a lot of chaos in photography these days, particularly about what makes something real.  If all photography is a sort of fabrication, can there be a distinction between real and fake? I think every haiku photographer has to find this spot —a point where you can feel the authenticity in the image. I like to aim my work at an authenticity objective, the way economist Joseph Pine described it: is it true to itself? and is it what it says it is?  Consequently, my haiku photos lean toward ‘pure seeing’, and are uncropped and to a large part unmanipulated. It’s all degrees of fiction, the only rule would be that it has to feel authentic and present a truth.

The practice

The practice of photographic haiku is not unlike the practice of writing haiku; they are works created in the present, they require craft; photography is moments noticed, that happen and then are gone. Haiku are like little origami, delightfully-but-meticulously crafted, often in a single sitting. Like a calligraphic enso practice, you just keep doing them, for better or worse. Easy to be okay, hard to be great.

And like written haiku, the photographic haiku is within a genre that embraces formality and simplicity, and aims for a sort of leap for the viewer, but is flexible in precisely how the photographer assembles the various poetic attributes. More of them makes for a better haiku, but they’re always nicer photographs. With all this said, you have a camera-phone on you right now. Take it out, and begin the simple haiku practice – of looking around at your very experience in this moment – what can you see through the rectangular window of the optical device? What reflects your individual life? Tiny shifts in body and position change it a lot. Put a frame around some small noticed thing, compose up a simple little tableau, simplify it visually, find your poetic juxtapositions, and try to make a haiku.  Like writing haiku, it’s deceptively difficult. But fun to explore.

— M.H. Rubin

Presence 78, March 2024