07
May-2016

STEPHEN VOSS: CREATING PORTRAITS OF BONSAI

Bonsai People   /  
33-ChineseElm-1

Chinese elm (training date unknown), photo by Stephen Voss

A photographer who specializes in portraits that are published in such high-profile news outlets as Time, Wired and The Washington Post, Stephen Voss is using that talent to create portraits of bonsai. His new book, In Training, features beautiful images of trees from the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum collection.

Self-published by Voss, the book was designed by D.C.-based Polygraph. Voss chose a short untitled poem, by Bunya No Asayasu to introduce the book because, he says, “the poem spoke to the impermanence of living things, even trees as long-lived as bonsai.” Bonsai expert Michael Hagedorn wrote the afterward. A Japanese black pine tree graces the cover of the book, which includes photos of 39 bonsai and penjing from the national collection. Illustrations are provided by Spiros Halaris. Each entry is accompanied by the scientific name of the tree and the number of years it has been “in training.”

Voss first visited the Museum in 1998 as a student at The George Washington University. In search of a possible subject for a photo book, he returned to the Museum in 2014.

On days off from his assignment work, he spent hours at the Museum focused on a single bonsai – “trying to understand the essence of the tree,” he says. Most photos of bonsai are straight-on, evenly lit images intended to show what the tree looks like, he says. “I was trying for a more nuanced view that captured something of the spirit of the tree.”

At the end of three months, Voss shared the photos with Museum Curator Jack Sustic. “Jack was immediately receptive, which meant a lot to me,” says Voss. “I felt like the project had his blessing.” Voss returned to the Museum to take photos for another year. “I would always leave feeling more at peace than when I came,” he says.

To raise funds to produce the book, Voss turned to the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. He received strong support from the worldwide bonsai community, raising $20,000 from donors in 15 countries.

“Some of the trees are hundreds of years old and have given me a different perspective on how I think about time,” says Voss. “They have passed through multiple bonsai masters who have tended to them every day.” Voss marvels at the fact that the trees will outlive the people who work on them. “There’s something really hopeful about that,” he says. “You are sending your life’s work into the future. You’re devoting your career to trees that will continue to grow and evolve beyond your lifetime.”

An exhibition of Stephen Voss’s photos will be on display at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum from May 13-22.

From July 14-Sept. 9, the exhibition will be on view at the Japan Information and Culture Center (1150 18th Street, NW), which is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. An opening event featuring a presentation by Stephen Voss and a lecture/demonstration by Jack Sustic, curator of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, will be held on July 14 at 6:30 p.m.

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