In the course of photographing his latest volume, Fine Bonsai: Art and Nature, Jonathan Singer had the privilege of meeting with a number of prominent international bonsai masters. When one of them–Seiji Morimae of the S-Cube Uchiku-Tei Bonsai Garden in Hanyu, Japan–saw Singer’s work, he realized instantly that it eclipsed any previous photography techniques known to the art form. He dismissed his poor staff photographer “on the spot.”
So Dr. Singer recalled this week in a conversation about Fine Bonsai, newly released this fall from Abbeville Press. Singer, who began his career as a New Jersey podiatrist, has become arguably the world’s most celebrated botanical photographer. His extraordinary knack for dramatic lighting and composition, as well as his passion for plants, emerges in each of the deluxe-sized images in Bonsai as well as in his previous volume for Abbeville, Botanica Magnifica. The result is a signature style of which “botanists are in awe,” according to Smithsonian.com.
Singer’s talents have also received recognition in high places. Morimae has recently nominated his work for the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award in Japan, which typically goes to bonsai plants themselves. Vanity Fair devoted a feature article to him in 2008, calling him a “prodigy” and tracing his vertiginous ascent in the worlds of photography and bookselling. Closer to home, a retrospective of his work took place at the New Jersey State Art Museum last year.
Convincing the Japanese bonsai masters to champion his work was no easy task. “I had to have absolute, dead-on focus,” Singer notes. “The Japanese don’t like black backgrounds–had never seen it, never tried it.” They doubted that some “upstart from the U.S. [could] show us from Japan something about photographing bonsai, which has been in our culture for 2,000 years.” As a guest in a foreign country, Singer “didn’t want to be my typical boisterous self,” so he asked the bonsai masters to keep an open mind. At the same time, “I had to slightly alter my shooting style [from Botanica] to suit the need of the subject…I had to shoot so I had at least 3 to 5 feet depth of field.” He was aided in his task, he says, by a “really solid” Hasselblad camera with a “great lens,” and by Abbeville’s publisher and designers, who did a “beautiful job” reproducing and pairing images so that “each thing flows into the next.” As evidenced by Morimae’s reaction, he more than won over his skeptics.
For Singer, the project is not only a professional triumph but a personal cause. While he was traveling and photographing in Japan, he was shocked by the devastation from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami. Thousands of lives and buildings had been lost and destroyed, and at least one major bonsai collection had been washed away. As a result, he says, he decided to use his photography to help. Portions of the proceeds from the Bonsai volume will be donated to Japanese relief organizations, and Singer has pledged to donate his own royalties to the widow of Morimae’s apprentice, who died in the catastrophe. “Hopefully,” he says, “it will make a difference.”
Singer spoke enthusiastically, too, about his next project, a photographic exploration of the “spirit rocks” or “scholar stones” used in traditional Chinese gardens. Collaborating with dealer and collector Kemin Hu, Singer has switched out his signature black backgrounds for red ones: the color is considered auspicious in China, and better sets off the black stones. Singer believes the book will be both “beautiful and meaningful” and will make Hu and himself “rock stars.” For this Vanity Fair-featured artist, still on the ascent, the pun may not be entirely a joke.