Local Photographer Pays Homage to Ancient Art in New Project

A Smooth-leaved Elm (in training since 1982) at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, DC.

A Smooth-leaved Elm (in training since 1982) at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, DC.

His Tenleytown neighbors might know Stephen Voss as simply a Janney parent who lives on Warren Street, but professional photographer Voss is perhaps best known for his photographs of high-profile political leaders, newsmakers, and celebrities that have graced the pages of Time, the New York Times Magazine, and the Wall Street Journal, to name a few. Now Voss is hoping to make a name for himself in a decidedly different venture – capturing the quiet stillness of bonsai at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in the National Arboretum.

A California Juniper bonsai (in training since 1985) at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, DC.

A California Juniper bonsai (in training since 1985) at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, DC.

“It was sort of a respite from my professional work,” explains Voss. “I primarily am a portrait photographer and my portrait shoots are usually pretty quick, without a lot of time to really make a connection or earn trust with my subject. This work can be thrilling and I always love the challenge of it, but I also felt like I was losing touch with some of the things I loved most about making photographs.”

After scores of hours spent photographing individual bonsai in relative solitude, Voss has culled the thousands of images he took into a visually powerful 40-page book titled In Training. The title is a reference to the intricate pruning and styling techniques cultivated by bonsai masters over centuries.

“Some of these trees are hundreds of years old and one of the most notable trees [at the museum] is nearly 400 years old and survived the bombing of Hiroshima in WWII,” says Voss. “Their very existence is profound – each tree is the life’s work of a bonsai master who knows that the tree will outlive them.”

A Sargent Juniper bonsai (in training since 1905) at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, DC.

A Sargent Juniper bonsai (in training since 1905) at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, DC.

In Training is an intimate look at these botanical works of art and is already garnering positive reactions. National Geographic’s PROOF blog featured Voss’ photographs and bonsai project earlier this month.

While Voss’ other photographs have been included in several books, this is his first venture into publishing his own book. To fund the project he has launched a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to raise the funds he needs by October 2.

“I’m fundraising for this book because I want to share something of the beauty of these trees and hopefully convey some of the peace and hope I feel when I’m around them,” Voss said.

Voss’ Kickstarter page includes a self-narrated video about the project and its genesis, as well as exquisite images of the bonsai with which he spent countless hours. Regardless of whether visitors to the page ultimately contribute to the project – and Voss certainly hopes they do – the video is well worth watching on its own.

Photo Credit: all images by and courtesy of Stephen Voss

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