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Fine Bonsai: Odori (The Dance)

Sargent Juniper (Juniperus chinensis var. sargentii)
Poetic name: Odori
Size: 27 in. (69 cm) tall
Estimated age: 250 years
Collection: Masahiko Kimura, Saitama City, Japan
Image from Fine Bonsai, published by Abbeville Press

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.

“This masterpiece, shown in three views, demonstrates how a heavy-appearing bonsai can become an elegant and refined work of art through the hands of a master such as Masahiko Kimura.”

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Click here for more information on Fine Bonsai, published by Abbeville Press.

“Absolute Focus”: A Conversation With Jonathan Singer

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.