• September 1, 2015

Visualizing the Meditative Lives of Bonsai Trees

Photographer Stephen Voss spends most of his days bouncing between rushed portrait sessions and heavily scrutinized PR-commissioned shoots in Washington, D.C. It’s unusual for him to have more than a few minutes with any of his subjects. When he started photographing the bonsai collection at the National Arboretum, it began as a kind of meditation—an escape from the hectic daily grind.

bonsai tree
A Japanese White Pine (in training since 1625) at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, DC. This tree survived the bombing of Hiroshima.

The bonsai collection at the Arboretum was conceived in 1972 and began with a bicentennial gift of 53 bonsai from Japan in 1976. Several of the bonsai are hundreds of years old, including one 390-year-old Japanese white pine that survived the bombing of Hiroshima. Voss would visit the arboretum whenever he had a free moment over the course of about a year. He would choose one tree to focus on each day and sit for hours on end, face-to-face with these epic yet small living beings.

bonsai trunk detail
A California juniper bonsai (in training since 1985) at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C.

While they are visually “incredibly gorgeous,” what also fascinates Voss are the bonsai masters who meticulously water, trim, and envision a tree’s shape as it grows, creating a work of art. Many bonsai masters even attend rigorous schools in Japan, where the trees are objects of almost singular devotion.

Watch this video to learn more about the art of bonsai.

leaning bonsai tree
A Chinese Elm penjing (training date unknown) at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, DC.

“What [the bonsai masters] are trying to do is reveal the essence of the tree—look at the chaos of nature and find its truest, most honest form, and give it a kind of visual harmony,” Voss says. “To me, it speaks to a hope for the future. This thing that they have devoted their entire lives to will be passed on and inherited by someone else.”

trunk and branches bonsai juniper tree
A Sargent’s juniper bonsai (training date unknown)
at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C.

When it came to his photographic method, Voss wanted to honor the intentions of the bonsai masters and their chosen shape of the tree. “Bonsai trees always have a distinct front, and I tried to respect that in my photographs. At the Arboretum the trees tend to be against an off-white, textured wall, and it really allowed me to focus on the form of tree and appreciate the shape of it and the way it was trained by the bonsai masters. I was interested in that starkness.”

bonsai roots
A Japanese Stewart bonsai (in training since 1926) at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C.

When I asked Voss whether he had tried his hand at being a bonsai master, he chuckled. “A few years ago, before I started photographing bonsai, I got my wife two plants and unfortunately they both died. We were terrible practitioners of bonsai. I travel a lot, and truly the trees take almost daily maintenance because they are in very small pots. They need to be watered almost every day and some can’t handle harsh sunlight.”

small red maple bonsai
A Drummond red maple bonsai (in training since 1974) at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C.

Voss’s real appreciation of bonsai comes through photographing them. “I hope that these photographs will give people a sense [of] what it’s like to be in the presence of the trees. For me, it’s a really calming and humbling experience. I want the images to capture the empathy and hope that I feel are baked into these trees, given their age and how long they last.”

bonsai tree trunk
A Sargent’s juniper bonsai (in training since 1905) at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, DC.

View more information about Stephen Voss’s project “In Training” on his Kickstarter page.

There are 26 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Guy Ward
    September 22, 2015

    To all you naysayers:- have you ever mown a lawn ,cleared a pathway, pulled any weeds, raked the leaves, owned an indoor plant, watered any plant, irrigated and gathered any crop, controlled any pests? If so , then you also do bonsai.

  2. Kevin C
    September 19, 2015

    I stumbled upon these amazing trees a couple of months ago while cycling in the DC area. To walk through the entire garden is to witness man and nature exploring the boundaries of coexistence. Bonsai is art and nature at work. I spent a couple weeks with my young daughter in Japan where we stayed with a family who had several bonsai trees in their courtyard. When I asked how long they had been caring for the plants they said it was started by their ancestors. They had been living in the same house for over 300 years.

  3. Beryl Ono Stapleton
    September 17, 2015

    I humbly bow to their greatness.

  4. Remigius de Souza
    September 16, 2015

    Once upon a time I was fascinated by Bonsai. It is a craft by Civilized (Urbanised) Society.
    I love plants in their natural state. In urban areas many plants may not be lucky to live in natural environment. Yet plants survive with compromises.
    Now I feel Urbanite live on External Aids, or The Life of Hydroponics, similar to their Potted Plants, without Introspection. However we are not aware HOW the Potted Plants must be FEELING!

  5. iqbal Khan
    September 14, 2015

    Both the trees and the photographs are beautiful. My passion for bonsai came first and then I started taking photos of the trees….Both give me loads of pleasure.

  6. Joan Hobbs
    September 14, 2015

    Bound feet, bound roots; at what price this beauty?

  7. James Housel
    September 14, 2015

    unremarkable, if competent photographs of an astonishing art. This article is the equivalent of photographing great architecture and then crediting the photographer.

  8. Shahid Mohamed
    September 14, 2015

    Sheer beauty & Great read

  9. viswantha
    September 13, 2015

    Photography Immotalizes a LIVING ART and BONSAI is LIVING ART ITSELF.

  10. Viviana
    September 13, 2015

    We all need a moment or a quiet place to take some serenity or meditation. Photogaraphy is art, bonsai too.
    The art brings about inspiration and happiness to us.
    Great photos!

  11. Rick Boylan
    September 13, 2015

    I love trees of all species, and as a lifetime wood carver I always hope that my work is a tribute to the life of the tree: carving a piece of wood that started growing at least 500 years before I did does give me pause.

  12. Pam
    September 13, 2015

    I think instead of feeling deprived, these trees would feel only the most extreme type of love and care. Imagine the time, love and devotion it would take to keep one of these trees alive and vigorous and for how may years? These are not trees that we put in the ground outside and hope they make it, they are handed down through generations and are treated only with much tenderness and devotion. Torture? I think not.

  13. Dr, Gary S. Ford
    September 13, 2015

    Thank you for sharing…you may have started me down a new path and a new hobby to consider.

  14. Frank K
    September 13, 2015

    Longwood Gardens have a nice display.

  15. Parviz Sani
    September 13, 2015

    Wow!–so lovely.that”s crazy

  16. Gavin McEwen
    September 13, 2015

    Time and patience are essential for Bonsai Master and Photographer, but infinitely more for the former. Beautiful work by both!

  17. Dee
    September 13, 2015

    Awesome trees. Photos are a real pleasure to view….

  18. Catherine Mellor
    September 13, 2015

    Those who share these beauties are blessing us. I get a sense of complete satisfaction and continuity when looking at either the real thing or their pictures, and I can only imagine the serenity of those masters enable these living art pieces to exist.

  19. Jim Hughes
    September 13, 2015

    This bonsai was not deprived. Just the opposite. It was pampered fro 390 years. Watered every day. Fertilized regularly. Needles were pulled to let in light. Pruning occurred annually to keep it healthy and “young”. It was repotted hundreds of times and its roots were pruned to keep it healthy and vigorous. Bonsai is not sadistic. It is at the opposite end of that spectrum.

  20. Thomas B Kemp
    September 13, 2015

    The Japanese White Pine (in training from 1625) is so exquisitely beautiful it stirs the soul.

  21. Wayne Marsh
    September 13, 2015

    Salina said, “What does it say about a species which submits another species to a lifetime of restriction, constriction, deprivation, contortion, etc.?”
    In fairness to the species, we subject ourselves to just as much restriction, etc. in the search for beauty. E.g., tattooing, piercing, yoga, drastic diets, tanning beds, purple hair dye, on and on.

  22. Julia
    September 13, 2015

    Some commenters need to appreciate the beauty and perfection of the Bonsai art.

  23. L Galina
    September 10, 2015

    What does it say about a species which submits another species to a lifetime of restriction, constriction, deprivation, contortion, etc.? Does sadism provide for any real need? Torture?

  24. Patricia
    September 8, 2015


  25. pk
    September 7, 2015

    …and screensaver!

  26. Lance
    September 5, 2015

    A natgeo caliber bonsai photo book would be super sweet!

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