PPD Spotlight: Stephen Voss On the Beauty of Bonsai Trees

By David Schonauer   Monday September 14, 2015

Time is different when you photograph the art of bonsai.

Washington, D.C.-based portrait photographer Stephen Voss  often doesn’t get much time with his famous subjects. “While I love the challenge of it and the time I spend with some really fascinating people, it's hard to really slow down the pace of these shoots,” he says.

On the other hand, Voss, a Pro Photo Daily reader who shoots for Time, the New York Times Magazine and National Public Radio, among other editorial clients, was under no time pressure when he photographed trees at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum  in Washington. And that was the point.

“Each time I visited the bonsai collection, I'd choose a single tree and spend a few hours photographing it,” he says. “With the bonsai, everything about the process is slow and contemplative, and I'm left with my own thoughts about how to respond to what I see.”

Voss is now crowdfunding In Training: A Book of Bonsai Photographs at Kickstarter, where time does matter: His campaign, with 18 days left, has raised more than half of its $14,000 goal. (Go here for more about the book.)

“I’ve loved bonsai trees since I first saw one almost twenty years ago at the National Arboretum in Washington, DC.,” Voss writes at Kickstarter. “I’m humbled when I think about the commitment of generations of bonsai masters who care for these trees.” The book, he hopes, will “share the feeling of being close to these remarkable trees.”

“I want these photos to express something of what it's like to be around these trees and hopefully convey some of the peace and hope I feel when I'm around them,” Voss told PPD recently. “It's also my way of trying to convey my deep respect for the bonsai masters who work on these trees. There's something so selfless about making bonsai your life's work, knowing the trees will outlive you and be passed on to someone else. I want these photos to capture that spirit imbued in each tree.”

One of the most challenging aspects of creating the images, he says, was getting the right light. “The images are all naturally lit, but I needed very cloudy, overcast days in order to get the look I wanted,” says Voss, who shot with a Canon 5D Mark III and a variety of lenses, including the Canon 180mm f/3.5 Macro Lens.

“I also had to juggle my busy shooting schedule, which is why it  took over a year to get a set of photos I was happy with,” he says.

His book will come in two versions — a First Edition hardcover edition and a Limited Edition that will come in a handcrafted slipcase and include a 12 x 18-inch print available only to Kickstarter backers.


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