Bonsai, as a living art, can never be completed: it is always changing and adapting as it struggles and thrives. As William N. Valavanis puts it in his introduction to Fine Bonsai, released last fall by Abbeville Press, “It is a living work of art, something that is born and lives, is affected by humans, and ultimately dies.” A bonsai can survive for centuries—it is a work of art created and refined over generations, and many artists may contribute to a single specimen. Because of this, Valavanis attests, “bonsai affords us insight into the very nature of life itself.”
The vitality of bonsai is expressed in exquisite grace in Jonathan Singer’s photography, and Fine Bonsai includes three hundred stunning, full-color images, including a range of wonderfully diverse species and styles. Many of the bonsai Singer photographed for this collection have been alive for hundreds of years, with a few rare subjects estimated to be as many as 800 years old—truly majestic and, in Singer’s words, “almost mythical” examples of the art of bonsai.
Viewing these legendary bonsai through Singer’s singular lens gets us as close as possible—or closer, considering the incredible larger-than-life detail of the images—to the real thing, which is, according to Valavanis, an unforgettable experience:
When one looks at some of the masterpiece trees that have survived for hundreds of years, it is impossible not to be moved by their vigor and life force. Such trees have outlived generations of humans and passed through many hands, seeing different artists come and go, each leaving his or her individual aesthetic influence on the tree.
Just take, for example, the elegance of the aptly named bonsai Odori, meaning the Dance. Sargent Juniper is a popular choice for bonsai cultivation because of its fine foliage and the striking color contrast between the living and the dead wood. Here, the strip of red-brown bark—its living tissue—is the lifeline of the bonsai, allowing it to take in water and nutrients, while the dead, white wood provides an almost sculptural element. Singer’s choice to include three images, from three different angles of this bonsai, allows us to see not only its poise, but also, as the eye moves from one image to the next, the movement of a dance.