As a photographer who now makes a living snapping pictures of some of the world’s most influential figures, Stephen Voss didn’t always know that photography could be more than a hobby.
Now that he’s an accomplished photographer, Voss wants to share his “tricks of the bonsai photography trade.” He will be writing a monthly blog covering everything from lighting, angles and mindset needed when photographing the trees, beginning with this introductory blog. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Instagram to never miss one of his entries!
Voss’ photography journey began while growing up in New Jersey, when he photographed his friends skateboarding and printed the pictures in a self-published magazine called “Skatedork.”
After graduating from The George Washington University, where he took some black and white darkroom courses, Voss moved from D.C. to Portland, Oregon where he took photos for the city’s weekly paper and cemented his love for photography.
“Coming out of college, I knew I wanted to be a photographer, but I didn’t really have a sense of how that could become a career,” Voss said. “My degree in computer science helped me pay the rent, while I developed my photographic career shooting just about everything you can think of for the paper in Portland.”
The paper’s “on-the-job education” exposed him to many interesting people and situations every day, which he said is one of the most alluring aspects of photography.
“The experiences made me realize that what I loved most about photography was the way it could serve as an entry point to pursuing my curiosities,” Voss said.
One of Voss’ first big projects led him to Zhengzhou, China, where a local environmental activist showed Voss multiple villages that had fallen victim to water pollution induced by factories located upstream.
“I saw empty homes where all the people living there had died from various forms of cancer,” Voss said. “I saw blackish, foul-smelling water coming out of pipes originating from a fertilizer factory, just upstream from where people fished and drew water from wells.”
News organizations like CNN and BBC that picked up the story featured the photos he took in the villages. Voss said his shoot in Zhengzhou taught him the power and limitations of photography.
“While the factory eventually stopped polluting the river, it was the work of the activists who effected change, any contribution the photographs made was peripheral at best,” he said.
Voss has been visiting The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum since 1998, when he was still a college student. He and his girlfriend, now wife, took the long cab ride from Foggy Bottom to the U.S. National Arboretum to wander through the Museum and marvel at the Capitol Columns, Voss said.
“When we moved back to D.C. in 2005, we visited the Museum on the morning of our wedding and frequently bring our children there to visit the trees,” he said.
Voss’ first attempt at photographing bonsai stemmed from frustration in his professional work, taking portraits of famous politicians and athletes. He said the work is fast-paced, which is exciting but can also be hectic. Voss said that when he wanted to begin a new personal project, he turned to the trees.
“I may have just a few minutes to try to make a meaningful image of someone before they had to rush off to their next appointment,” he said. “I wanted a subject that would allow me to take my time, and the trees felt like a perfect fit.”
Voss spent months photographing the trees without thinking much about what he would do with the finished products, and he struggled to find what he could add to the living works of art through his project.
“Sometimes it felt similar to photographing paintings in a museum,” he said. “At some point, I realized I was more interested in trying to portray something of the spirit of the trees, not just a literal representation.”
Early on in his project, Voss debuted a selection of his images to Jack Sustic, who served as the Museum’s curator for 13 years. Voss said Sustic supported his mission to capture the trees’ essence through a camera lens and encouraged him to continue his project. He took about 12,000 images of the Museum’s bonsai collection in one and a half years.
“I knew I had the makings of a book project once I had a selection of 50 or so images that I liked,” he said.
Voss then raised money to print the book through a Kickstarter campaign and worked with a design company to lay out the pages.
“The printing process took quite a long time,” he said. “I only received my first books from the printer in Hong Kong the day before the book release party!”
After his years of working hard and delving into the world of photographing bonsai, Voss’ book, “In Training, A Book of Bonsai Photos,” is now widely circulated. You can purchase a copy of “In Training” here.