The Bonsai Journal

Book Review:Fine Bonsai - Art & Nature

Photographs by Jonathan M. Singer - Text by William N. Valavanis
Abbeville Press

Review by Andy Rutledge

The cover of Fine Bonsai
When my copy of Fine Bonsai arrived I almost dropped it as the delivery man handed it to me. Though large, I didn't expect the package to be so heavy. At 12" x 15" x 1.75" and almost 10 pounds, this is a large and weighty book. The beautiful slipcase adds even more dimension and almost another pound of weight. When I finally unboxed and perused the book I was delighted to discover that the content, too, was weightier than expected.

Fine Bonsai – Art & Nature is primarily a photo-artistic study of bonsai from public and private collections in North America and Japan, with photos by renowned photographer Jonathan M. Singer and text by the respected American artist, teacher, and publisher William N. Valavanis.

Koto Hime Japanese Maple
A fine example of Acer palmatum “Koto Hime” bonsai, from the International Bonsai Arboretum in Rochester, New York.

In addition to the bonsai sections which comprise most of the book, beautiful and important bonsai containers and suiseki are featured in discrete chapters. Each is filled with practical and historical information on the depicted works. There's also an informative section on the various arboretums and nurseries whose trees are featured in this book.

Arboretums and nurseries
Information about the nurseries and arboretums where these fine bonsai are kept.
The suiseki section.
Bonsai Containers
The bonsai container section.

The Good

The photography is stunning. Each of the 281 full-page photos allows the subject its individual due and dignity. The rich, dark background surrounding the bonsai in these photos, combined with elegant and creative lighting, presents each subject in a way that is at once serene and emphatic. Though the dark environment for the photos creates perhaps an uncommon or unfamiliar context for bonsai, the trees seem most comfortable there. They shine like stars on a stage.

The photos are not the only things to like here. Mr. Valavanis' words provide, in my opinion, the perfect complement and much-needed practical balance to the immense and beautiful photographic record. With the text, the book goes from being perhaps a mere (if profound) coffee table book to being an important educational and highly compelling work. While portions of the text provide for the uninitiated an excellent introduction to bonsai, other sections offer even to experienced bonsai enthusiasts interesting insights and meaty facts.

Japanese Black Pine
A famous Japanese black pine from the nursery of Mr. Kunio Kobayashi (regrettably shown without soil surface preparation).

A prime example of the immense value of Mr. Valavanis' contribution can be found in the informational section, where practical details for each of the almost 300 featured bonsai are provided. In addition to practical specifics and species information, the provenance of each specimen is detailed. Surely this is more extensive an historic record than has ever been collected into one English language volume. For this alone, the book is worth its rather high price. Mr. Valavanis' prose is approachable, insightful, and in no way stodgy despite the serious nature of the work. Bonsai is well served by his participation in this project.

Provenance section
Each bonsai is accompanied by its vital statistics and provenance information. A wonderful addition to the book.

The Bad

While there is much to like here, there is unfortunately plenty to criticize. While Mr. Singer's skill and artistry are unquestionable, his admitted lack of familiarity with bonsai has consequences that are revealed in the details and the overall. While many of these specimens are well known and important works, it was individual qualities rather than presentational quality that Mr. Singer seemed to pursue here.

These errors, as I would call them, led to an almost blatant apology from Mr. Hiroshi Takeyama in his Foreword for the condition of many of the trees, and seemed to compel Mr. Valavanis to more than once attempt to qualify the results displayed in the photos.

I do not mean to say that the trees were ill selected. Just that seasonal considerations and important elements of display preparation and vital artistic standards were quite often ignored. For example, almost all of the trees were photographed out of season for the species:

Zelkova thick with summer growth
This fine Zelkova is marred by rangy summer growth.
Pine shown out of season
This Japanese black pine is wonderful, but shown here in poor condition for artistic depiction.
This beautiful juniper made less so by the presence of strong spring shoots leaping from the silhouette.

But seasonal condition was not the only problem. With but a few exceptions, the soil surface was either completely ignored or improperly prepared to suit the context of recording bonsai artistry:

Tie wires visible
The tie wires for this pine are clearly visible, robbing the tree of much elegance.
Fertilizer pellets left on
This wonderful Shishigashira maple is diminished by the presence of fetilizer pellets left on the soil surface.

…and in a profound departure from bonsai artistry, but for the cascade specimens that required them, not a single bonsai is displayed on a stand! So while the bonsai are beautiful and often important specimens and the photography wondrous, it is the art of photography rather than the art of bonsai that is depicted here.

If I sound disappointed, it's because I am. One would hope that a project of this quality and importance would have allowed for some preparation and efficacious scheduling instead of what was quite clearly an impromptu selection effort. These issues mar the project, but I will not go so far as to say that they destroy it. There is yet much to enjoy here.


The Christian Larch
I was delighted to find a couple of examples of my own teacher's work depicted in the book. Here, The “Christian Larch” created by Nick Lenz.

Despite the deficiencies, that matter perhaps only to picky bonsai artists, this is a wonderful book and an important, ground-breaking work. The immense effort by many generous people in this project may just be unprecedented. The result certainly is unprecedented. I believe you will find no single collection of photographic quantity and quality paired with so great a volume of interesting and insightful information anywhere.

If you are familiar with famous and storied bonsai, you will delight in becoming reacquainted with some of your old favorites. And you'll likely learn much more about them in the provenance section. If you are new to bonsai, this book will throw gasoline on the spark of your interest and will surely provide hundreds of hours of interesting study and enjoyment, along with plenty of food for reflection.

A portion of the sales proceeds will go to the Japanese Red Cross Society.

Fine Bonsai – Art & Nature
Photography by Jonathan M. Singer, Text by William N. Valavanis
Contributions by Thomas S. Elias, W. John Kress, and Hiroshi Takeyama
Abbeville Press Publishers
Slipcased $150 - ISBN: 978-0-7892-1112-5
Leather-bound Deluxe Edition Slipcased $225 - ISBN: 978-0-7892-1116-3
Size: 12" x 15"
416 pages
Published 2012