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In Training – The Act of Creating a Physical Object

On a personal level, this series began as a challenge to myself. I wanted to reconstruct my working methods and understand what I was capable of as a photographer when I denied myself my usual starting points and fallbacks.

The bonsai tree is a living object stripped of all that is inessential. I wanted to make pictures that would speak to each tree’s essence, its history and its dignity.

Working on personal projects is essential to my growth as a photographer. When I began this series two years ago, I was at a point where I felt frustrated with my professional work. Often in my portrait assignments, I’m given very short amounts of time with my subjects and am so rarely able to settle into a shoot before running out of time. So, in some ways, I wanted to make photographs of a subject that would just sit still, where I would be unencumbered by time or deadlines.

I began visiting the bonsai collection in 1998, while I was attending school in Washington, DC. After graduating, I moved away to the west coast before returning to DC and have lived here now for twelve years. I love Japanese art, especially woodblock prints and have been attracted to the spare, measured aesthetic I see in those prints and these trees as well.

I began photographing the trees in the fall of 2014. The following spring, I met with the curator of the bonsai museum to show him the work. On one level, it was simply to share what I had been doing all those quiet months as we greeted each other, often as the only two people in the museum. But, on a deeper level, I felt like I need his permission to continue to develop this work, as it was a very untraditional way of showing these trees. He gave me his full backing, and I continued to photograph the trees for another year, visiting the museum dozens of times.

Each time I visited the museum, I walked around until I found a tree that I found interesting and settled in by it. I would always spend the first twenty minutes of my time writing about the tree. The writing served to sharpen my eye for what was before me and to clear out my mind a bit before getting into the photography. The writing usually began with a physical description of the tree – its shape, the texture of the bark, anything I found notable about it. After these making these observations, I would try to dig a bit deeper into what I found compelling about the tree, really forcing myself to spell it out. This writing often led to better, deeper insights about what I was after and how I wanted to approach the photos. After that, I would usually photograph the tree for somewhere between 2 and 4 hours, exploring different viewpoints and working through visual ideas, hoping I would arrive at an image that would express something of the tree and what it felt like to stand before it.

Standing before these trees, I think about the generations of bonsai masters who worked on them. I think about the idea of making something your life’s work, then passing it along to someone else to continue developing it.

It was once explained to me that one might visualize a river with bonsai trees floating down it. The bonsai masters on each side would wait patiently for the right tree to come along, pull it from the water, and begin work on it. When they passed, the tree would be sent down the river for the next master to work on it. That idea of letting go of authorship of your work, and of believing that a future will exist where someone will carry on with the maintenance and training of the tree gives me great hope and fills me with empathy for this work. That feeling, that reverence and that hope is why I am attracted to these trees and wanted to make this work.

Once I had a series of images I was happy with, I started an online fundraiser for the book and successfully raised enough money to have it designed and printed.  Since then, I’ve given interviews to the BBC, CNN and others and have continued to give talks about the work.

Once I decided I wanted to make a book, I was determined to do everything I could to make it a success. Part of this desire came from a fear of failure – when you ask for money online and produce something that is going out into the world, its success or failure feels personal. So that fear drove me, as did the realization that this project was a gift. It’s rare to have such complete creative control over something and I took that privilege very seriously.

In the process of making this book, my respect for people who create things and push them out into the world grew immensely. It takes bravery to make something personal and then let it be seen and judged by the outside world.

The most challenging parts of the book were figuring out the final sequencing, and honestly, writing the introduction. Photography feels like a language I have some competency in, but finding the right words to express myself in the introduction took months of revision. I’m fortunate to have in my wife a keen and sensitive partner who guided and shaped the words that begin the book.

I first picked up a camera when I was photographing my friends skateboarding and putting together a skate zine that I laid out mostly by hand with some rudimentary desktop publishing software. Later on, a couple of black and white darkroom courses in college cemented my interest in the medium (and made up the full extent of my formal education in photography). A series of slow steps forward followed after that as I began my career as a photographer.

My days vary greatly. On shoot days, I’m loading up equipment from my house, driving/flying/taxiing to the location, sizing it up and figuring out where to make my photos. When I’m home, I’m often doing the routine office work of running my business.

As I had alluded to before, this work is a departure from the work I do professionally. The rather accelerated nature of my portrait shoots means relying on careful planning, but then trusting my gut instincts as to how to direct my subject, what images I need to make, etc. I enjoy the challenge inherent in this sort of work, but had been concerned that I had lost touch with what I most loved about photography.

Beginning a new project is always hard, fraught with uncertainty and self-doubt. I think it takes a lot of motivation and work to start something, with no idea of where it will lead and/or if it will be of any worth. If I’ve learned anything in my work, it’s to not pre-judge what I’m creating, but to trust the process of making something and give it room and time to succeed or fail on its own merits.

In this project, I wanted to revisit that freedom to just sit and look, to take in what’s in front of me, having this kind of tunnel vision as the world goes silent and all that I am and all that I know goes into making images. It almost feels like meditation, as I look at these trees until some facet of their personality reveals itself.

And in that personality of the trees, something is revealed of its creator and I feel like I’m given this small window into their thinking, whether the tree was first training a decade ago or a century ago. Some of these trees feel free and whimsical, others carry a weight to them– a deeply felt sense of age and experience.

I feel like I’m engaging with the world when I make photos. I’m experiencing it directly, interacting with what’s before me and hopefully having meaningful experiences that enhance my appreciation of the rewards of careful observation. Being a photographer allows me to pursue my curiosities, to explore interests and interact with interesting people. I feel at my most purposeful when I’m out making photos.

I wanted to capture the spirit of each tree, the weight of its history and I wanted to communicate my enormous respect for these fragile, living things and the people who have taken care of them.

I’m looking for an original viewpoint on our collective experience of living in the world. Like any photographer, I hope my work is seen and outlives me just like these trees. The act of creating a physical object like a book is in service of this idea of passing along what I’ve found, sharing what I’ve discovered and believing in a future where artistic work is valued.

Stephen Voss

Stephen Voss takes photographs for magazines, newspapers and organizations around the world. His work is a mix of lit portraiture and reportage.

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