Tag Archives: jonathan singer

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.

Good Friday and Happy Easter: Calla Lilies!

Calla Lily
Araceae, Aroid Family, South Africa
Rhizomatous herb to 6 ft. (2 m), tall, inflorescence to 8 in. (20 cm) across
from Botanica Magnifica, by Jonathan Singer, published by Abbeville Press

It’s a big weekend coming up for Calla lilies: Easter lilies, along with Easter bunnies and Easter eggs and Easter chicks, have become emblematic of the holiday and of the season of spring. Although the Calla lily is not a true lily—it’s part of the Araceae family, native to southern Africa—its characteristic pure white spathe (the petal-like cup of the flower) and yellow spadix (the stem at the center of what is actually an inflorescence of many flowers) give this flower its classic look. Jonathan Singer’s Calla lily, from his gorgeous collection Botanica Magnifica, published by Abbeville Press (and now newly available in a Tiny Folio edition!), is a perfect example of the natural elegance of this spring flower.

Of course, Calla lilies aren’t just for Easter. The thick stem allows for almost-sculptural arrangement by floral artists. In his informative text in Botanica Magnifica, Marc Hachadourian, manager of the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections of the New York Botanic Garden, writes on the Calla lily: “The calla lily’s pristine white blooms, symbolic of purity, have long been favorites of both artists and gardeners. Calla lilies were once favored cut flowers for vase arrangements and bridal bouquets and are now enjoying a resurgence in popularity. In their native South Africa they are still collected by the thousands by locals and sold on the streets of Cape Town during their peak season of bloom in spring.”

Singer’s images in Botanica Magnifica capture the essence of each flower he photographs, and many other spring varieties are represented in his breathtaking collection: the Easter orchid, the Resurrection lily, the Tulipa ‘Swan Wings,’ and of course the Iris ‘Jean-Marie’ that enchanted us with its grace last week are a few of the many spectacular subjects that Singer—always with his unmistakable style—shares with us. In the spirit of renewal that these images inspire, may your weekend be full of joy with family, flowers, and with the celebration of spring.

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Click here more information on the new Tiny Folio edition of Botanica Magnifica published by Abbeville Press.

Botanica Magnifica: Celebrating Spring

Iris ‘Jean Marie’ German or Bearded Iris
Iridaceae, Iris Family
Rhizomatous perennial herb to 3ft. (1m) tall, flower to 8in. (20 cm) across
From Botanica Magnifica, by Jonathan Singer, published by Abbeville Press

Nothing says spring like the year’s first flowers pushing their way up in the sun—crocuses, daffodils, and irises (oh my!) are some of the early signs of the season to come, full of life and color. And no one has captured the energy and grace of flowers with such vitality as Jonathan Singer in his Botanica Magnifica, which has been praised by botanists and artists alike for its stunning presentation of detail and for the elegance and astonishing clarity of its images. Indeed, Singer captures the personality and poise of each flower he photographs, and the result is not merely a reproduction but a portrait, imbued with the spirit of its subject.

Today at the Abbeville Blog, we’re celebrating the official first day of spring, and along with it our release of the new Tiny Folio edition of Jonathan Singer’s Botanica Magnifica: Portraits of the World’s Most Extraordinary Flowers and Plants, published by Abbeville Press. This magnificent book was originally released in an edition of only ten copies, as a monumental Double Elephant Folio in five hand-bound volumes—a large-scale project proven worthy of its artistic predecessor, namely Audubon’s Birds of America. The original release of Botanica Magnifica has found its home in the Smithsonian, and Abbeville subsequently released the Baby Elephant Folio edition; now, the Tiny Folio preserves all 251 photographs from the original, but compacted into a palm-sized book—still full color, and still resplendent with Singer’s singular sense of sophistication and charm.

Singer expresses in light and near-incandescent color against shadow—a technique that prompted one ARTnews critic to comment on his flowers “emerging from the shadows in a manner evocative of Old Master paintings”—a buoyancy and luminosity rarely seen in botanical photography, which captures and conveys not only the physical qualities of the plant but also its living essence. Take, for example, how the Iris ‘Jean Marie’ above—with its tender stripes and its delicate pout—floats weightlessly over the dark background, with just a hint of green stem to anchor the bloom to the earth: the iris becomes an emblem of levity, of the immediate and overwhelming liveliness of spring.

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Click here for more information on the new Tiny Folio edition of Botanica Magnifica, published by Abbeville Press.

Joy on the Grand Scale: Jonathan Singer at the New Jersey State Museum

When a fellow scholar interested in botanical illustration pointed Dr. Karen Reeds to a Smithsonian.com article on Jonathan Singer, she was struck right away by what she saw. “Within five minutes,” she recalls, “I thought: this is something that would make a good exhibition.”

Actually bringing Singer’s photography to the New Jersey State Museum, where Dr. Reeds is a freelance curator, took some time and negotiation. For one thing, the project would be an ambitious one for the museum, which “didn’t have any frames large enough on hand” for Singer’s giant-sized photographs. Still, says Dr. Reeds, the publication of Singer’s Botanica Magnifica, with its gorgeous full-color images of rare and exotic plants, was a “tremendous advertisement” that wowed her fellow curators.

Asked why the images appealed so much to her own eye, Reeds praised “the contrast of the absolutely luminous color against the black background…that makes them all the more vivid.” She noted the influence on Singer of still life paintings by Dutch Old Masters, which, she said, were “ingrained in me from a very early age as a beautiful thing to see” (a reproduction of one of them hung in her grandmother’s house as a child). She pointed, too, to the way their size works in the photographs’ favor; they’re “so large that you see things that you could not actually see on the living plant”–or under a microscope, which doesn’t permit a view of the entire specimen. Finally, she said, there is the artist’s personal imprint, independent of technical considerations: his “sheer joy in the forms and colors of the plant.”

Once the exhibition was set to go forward, Reeds worked with Singer and her fellow curators to, as she puts it, “create a story.” Their choice of materials dictated by what was already framed, they grouped images to create a logical flow for each section of exhibition, juxtaposing them with the museum’s John James Audubon prints to emphasize their continuity with the “historical tradition of natural history illustration on the grand scale.”

How was the show received? “Very well,” says Reeds: it attracted praise from ARTNews, ART TIMES, and Princeton Magazine, among other outlets, as well as considerable community interest in Trenton and beyond. It satisfied the most demanding critics, too: Reeds noticed that children were quite fond of the work, responding in particular to “Jonathan’s more abstract images”–those that “hom[ed] in on an abstract piece of color and form.” From little kids to the Smithsonian, from Botanica Magnifica to Fine Bonsai, it seems that the wow factor in Singer’s work remains a constant.

“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.