9 min read

Awe Walks & Imperfection

Forgetting wabi-sabi, Mark Ruwedel's New Book, Mis-steps & The Pittsburgh Steps & more stories worth reading!

Life: I was introduced to the concept of wabi-sabi several years ago in a photography forum during a discussion about Japanese photography. From what I understand, it roughly means finding beauty in everyday imperfections and embracing impermeanance. A few weeks ago I started writing some thoughts on the topic but then I was working in Substack trying to upload an image and accidentally deleted everything. Poof. No trace. Gone. I guess I kind of set myself up for that one, and maybe what I was writing wasn’t all that important or insightful.

I think wabi-sabi bubbled up into my consciousness when I started handwriting with pens a few weeks. Nothing looked right and I was having trouble even making the words legible. I’ve always had terrible handwriting so have avoided it throughout my life, but now I found the process of writing interesting. It’s so hard! How can I make the words look the way I imagine them on the paper? Maybe I can’t, and maybe that’s where wabi-sabi becomes relevant. The flaws are what I find interesting.

Art: One of the struggles I’ve been having is that it’s increasingly difficult to focus on digital production. I sit at a computer for my day job so when it comes to the evening and weekend, I want to stay away from the screen, and prefarably be out walking and working on projects in the field. I’ve been returning with a lot of new material but most of the work I’ve been doing is organizing and editing the projects. I’m still waiting to print out a bunch of photos, so I don’t have much physical to work with and it has made me anxious. I needed to change my process and add something new to the mix.

Years ago when I lived in Minneapolis I spent a year experimenting with painting. It was glorious. The paintings were terrible but the physical process of creating them was exciting and interesting. It reminded me of playing sports as a kid. I’ve been thinking about this on my walks and eventually arrived at the idea that I needed to buy pens and paper. I want to try writing long-hand and experimenting with ink on paper.  

It’s been amazing. It’s exactly what I needed. My handwriting is awful and I can’t draw, but that doesn’t matter. Even if the results aren’t usable the process has activated a different part of my creativity. I’ve started taping photos into notebooks and experimenting with drawing maps. It reminded me of working on ‘Photographers’ Sketchbooks’ several years ago, and how different photographers used notebooks to develop their projects. I’m now asking myself why it took me so long to get to this point. I haven’t found an answer yet, and probably won’t. Everything moves in stages.


Awe Walks

“Basically, we told them to try to go and walk somewhere new, to the extent possible, since novelty helps to cultivate awe,” says Virginia Sturm, an associate professor of neurology at U.C.S.F., who led the new study. The researchers also suggested that the walkers pay attention to details along their walks, Dr. Sturm says, “looking at everything with fresh, childlike eyes.”

They emphasized that the awesome can be anywhere and everywhere, she says, from a sweeping panorama of cliffs and sea to sunlight dappling a leaf. “Awe is partly about focusing on the world outside of your head,” she says, and rediscovering that it is filled with marvelous things that are not you. - An ‘Awe Walk’ Might Do Wonders for Your Well-Being

Walking: Many people are drawn to photography because it helps them capture and remember their awe moments. I know that was certainly the case for me. Photography helped me be more present in the moment and understand how a small sliver of time can be articulated into something physical (well, if you print your photos.) The combination of walking and photography have made me think about time in a new way.

A seven hour walk can feel like a week when you’re on it, and then like only a few moments when you look back on it. I’m interested in how the data that I collect on the walk helps me remember and understand it. We have a unique relationship with our own photographs because they provoke our memories in unusual ways. Sometimes I’ll come across a photograph from one of my walks, and suddenly I can feel the chill in the air or the smell of the trail. Maybe that’s a return of the awe? I’m not sure. I like to believe I’ve cultivated an appreciation of awe, and my hunch is that we can most easily summon it when we are able to sustain focused attention without worrying about time contraints, or if we’re being productive. It’s why we need to learn ‘How to Do Nothing.’



Seventy-Two and One Half Miles Across Los Angeles by Mark Ruwedel

“For this project, Mark Ruwedel travelled across Los Angeles between 2011-2014, following in the footsteps of friend and author Nigel Raab. His carefully planned route spanning 72.5 miles began at his house in Westchester and ended at the Metro station in San Bernardino; a route chosen to cross as many geographic, economic, political and cultural boundaries as possible. The views and sights we see here reflect several legacies: from Raab’s own journey, to that of LA photographer Ed Ruscha, whose photobooks provided an inspiration throughout the course of the project.” - MACK

Photobooks: This is a cool project incorporating walking. I’ve seen a couple of Ruwedel’s shows over the years in New York, and have always enjoyed his projects.

This one in particular is relatable because of my time in Los Angeles. I often wonder how I would choose to walk the city now compared to when I lived there 15 years ago. Ruwedel’s project looks like it captures the expansiveness of Southern California in stark scenes where you can sense the sun burning the scene. He’s an interesting photographer, and I can appreciate the focus on architecture in the landscape.

The concepual hook on walking adds an element that holds my attention. Without that, would I have the same reaction? If this was not framed in the context but more as a roaming look at sprawl in SoCal? All the information is important and changes our perceptions.


Mis.Steps & The Pittsburgh Steps

Photobooks: Alex from Pedestrian Magazine DM’d me this project by Laura Zurowski the other day, and I loved it. I’ve heard about the Pittsburgh steps and told a photographer friend in Pittsburgh a few times that I needed to visit to see the steps. This project has several elements I find interesting right now: the obsessive quest to document infrastructure in completion, typology, nostalgic aesthetic, following the path of another obessive, it all works for me. And then pushing it out as zines. Wonderful.

Now I need to visit Pittsburgh! I think I’d map out a few walks, and try to connect the stairs in interesting ways. I bet you could see plenty in a couple days if you plan it out.

Laura’s site led me to this short documenty about the steps. I like it. It makes me imagine a channel that’s all about pedestrianism.



Lyon Walk

Maps: I came across an article about the Lyon transportation system and that made me go to the map to see how it looks for pedestrians. I spotted a trail, and next thing you know I was plotting out a walk in Lyon. I have a couple of friends living in the city and one of them tells me the better trails are west of the city. Fair enough, but this walk looks interesting as well, and now I’m wondering if I’ll get a chance to do it. Or maybe someone else will try. It’s interesting to think about how someone else would plot a walk in the city. I focus on the trails and park systems, trying to find connections. But I’m sure other people would build their own ideas on how to progress.


Walking for Productivity and Problem Solving

Creativity: On Twitter I follow a few accounts that focus on creativity and producitivty, so I oftne end up stumbling upon new accounts through their retweets, and last week David Kadavy popped into my feed with a few interesting threads.

He has a book called ‘Mind Management Not Time Management’ that takes a look at how we organize our days for creativity and producitivity. I know that I function best when I can walk first thing in the morning for at least an hour. This time allows me to prepare for the day and work out any challenges I’m stumbling upon.

On the weekend, my longer walks are great for divergent thinking and sysnthesizing ideas. And I’ve come to understand how to best get into flow state. A solid night sleep, a quick breakfast and then out the door for a walk to specific destination. No roaming.

Normally the first 90 minutes are the most productive, when I start to generate new ideas and develop solutions. The key for me is being in my neighborhood and having enough time for the walk. Correlates to this tweet from Nassim Nicholas Taleb as well.

Walking is misunderstood, underrated. Nothing, nothing substitutes for it. And the minimum should be > 6-7 miles on v. hilly terrain.

Walking deprivation is similar to sleep deprivation.

‘Physical Cartography’

The walker sets out and leaves a digital thread of her journey, constructing the map of her route while experiencing it. Thus, her way of walking is directed not by a preconceived representation of the site, but by the site itself and its specific conditions on the day and hour of the excursion. Thinking, acting, and making become simultaneous, and the detail embedded in the resulting GPS drawing is a direct outcome of the extent of physical exertion and time spent in the landscape. I call this physical cartography. - A Way of Walking, Katherine Jenkins

Walking and maps: This was a really interesting article by Katherine Jenkins, an artist and assistant professor of landscape architecture at Ohio. The article covers a few ideas, walking during the pandemic, walking for research, and educating through the landscape. This lead me to her “interdisciplinary design/research group Present Practice” where you can check out more of her projects.


Art: I found this trippy short film in this article: Beyond Cyberpunk: Towards A Solarpunk Future

5 Stories

  • Why American public transit is so bad [Vox]
  • Imagine a transcontinental network of protected bike paths [Fast Company]
  • Did Athens’ ‘Great Walk’ Stumble? [CityLab]
  • New Study Reveals Similar Creative Process For Artists, Engineers And Scientists [Forbes]
  • To Mend a Broken Internet, Create Online Parks [Wired]

I’m a strategist, photographer, and writer in New York City. You can email me at info@bryanformhals.com or follow me on Instagram & Twitter

Way of the Walk is my newsletter on walking, photography and creativity. Each issue, I share updates on my current walking projects as well as interesting articles and projects focusing on walking, urbanism, New York City and art.