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The Best of Bonsai Today / AoB's Styling Contest

Text and Photo selection by Carl Bergstrom
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The 2006 Bonsai Today / Art of Bonsai photography contest was a rousing success, bringing in over 200 quality photographs of bonsai and kusomono from around the world. This event also highlighted the potential for mutually beneficial collaboration between the print and digital media that serve the bonsai community.

After the judges selected the winners of each category, we were left with many excellent entries that also deserved broad public recognition. Here, I have picked a set of personal favorites from the contest, and I have annotated these with my comments about styling, presentation, and, specifically, about the photography. This was after all a photography contest. So, in roughly the order that the submissions were received:

Fred Truck-Texas Scarlet

Texas Scarlet

We begin with a delightful shot from Fred Truck. I'm taken by the bright flowers in an otherwise largely colorless frame (highlighted by the surprising but effective choice of a white pot), and by the textural contrast between spikes and blossoms. I also find this shot inspiring because it shows even a young tree can provide a lovely image.

 

Thomas Mozden-Juniperus procumbens

Ibuki Juniper (Juniperus procumbens)

Next we move to an entry from Thomas Mozden. Thomas has a distinctive personal style that I've enjoyed watching for years -- his trees tend toward perfect neoclassic proportions, but instead of separating the foliage pads as broadly as is traditional, Thomas simply hints at their division with narrow lines of separation. This image shows Thomas's style at perhaps its pinacle thus far:

 

Thomas Mozden-Acer buergeranum

Trident Maple (Acer buergeranum)

Thomas Mozden also submitted this beautiful composition; not only is it a very nice tree, it is also in my opinion better-photographed than the other submission.

 

Bernie Cramer-Acacia nigrescens

Knob Thorn (Acacia nigrescens)

Windswept deciduous trees are extremely difficult to pull off, and I am not sure I have seen one that I would consider fully successful. However, I haven't seen the native flora of Bernie Cramer's home, South Africa, so for all I know this is a perfect representation of the trees in his environment. The display intrigues me as well; the slab as stand works better than I would have expected, though its rugged natural character seems at odds with the human construction of the woven mat below. Again, the pot color works much better than I would have anticipated; however, I am bothered slightly by the contrast between a tree and display that I associate with aridity, the green moss right at the base, and the sea of small stones around. One aspect of this entry leave no room for question: this is a technically excellent piece of photography, among the best that we received.

 

Walter Pall-Picea abies

European Spruce (Norway Spruce) (Picea abies)

One the major challenges for me in assembling this gallery was the task of picking which trees to include from Hanna and Walter Pall. I could make a strong case for any and all of them; all are excellent trees, beautifully photographed. In the end, rather than making any effort at selecting the best of this group, I have simply taken the easy road out, and selected the ones that speak loudest to me.

This spruce below could be a full sized tree in the mountains; I have to look it over and again to convince myself it is a bonsai. The tender green shoots add a lovely touch of color and vitality:

 

Walter Pall-Juniperus scopulorum

Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum)

Because this is a photography contest as well as a tree contest, I appreciate the unconventional view of one of my favorite of Walter's trees. I love seeing this tree in a display setting -- but this view gives me the additional pleasure of imagining that I am walking through Walter's garden on a crisp early morning.

 

Walter Pall-Pinus mugo

Mugo Pine (Pinus mugo)

The movement and balance in this tree is exceptional.

 

Walter Pall-Lonicera periclymenum

Wild European Lonicera (Lonicera periclymenum)

Here we have a very unusual tree; the abstract geometric simplicity is augmented by the contrast between youthful foliage and flowers and the aged bark and trunk. This is a emotionally moving composition.

 

Mauro Stemberger-Juniperus procumbens 'sonare'

Ibuki Juniper (Juniperus procumbens 'sonare')

On to Italy, with an entry from Mauro Stemberger. This is clearly one of the top trees in the contest. Unfortunately, I feel that the photograph does not do it complete justice; the background is underexposed and the framing is not level. The placement of the tree within the frame, coupled with the slightly crooked viewpoint and the natural visual flow of this great tree makes it appear unbalanced and about to fall out of the ledge edge of the photograph; a different use of negative space in the shot would restore the balance that I am certain this tree exhibits in person.

 

Dorothy Schmitz-Juniperus chinensis 'san jose'

San Jose Juniper (Juniperus chinensis 'San Jose')

Dorothy Schmitz has submitted a tree that is clearly going to be great. I love the form, the total integration of deadwood elements, and extensive detail work. My major complaint is that this tree is shot from an angle, presumably because the front has changed since the last repot. A tree in that condition is not ready for display, and I feel similarly about a photographic display. (Though a closeup of the canopy, omitting the pot entirely would be acceptable as a piece of photographic art). So far as the photograph is concerned, the lighting is lovely but I do not understand the extensive negative space at the top of the frame.

 

Dorothy Schmitz-Ulmus alata

Winged Elm (Ulmus alata)

Even if the does not have quite as much potential as the one displayed above, I prefer this other entry from Dorothy; here we have got a very nice tree, a clean, careful display, and a good photograph all coming together.

 

Wolfgang Putz-Azalea 'Nissho no Hikari'

Azalea 'Nissho no Hikari'

Here Wolfgang Putz takes a good tree and from it creates a great piece of photographic art with a combination of technically excellent photography and a marvellous eye for color. The match of the flowers to the pot is perfect; not only do the pink and blue complement extremely well, by their pastel tones are closely matched in saturation, generating a lovely color balance.

 

Wolfgang Putz-Larix decidua

European Larch (Larix decidua)

Here is another professional-quality photograph from Wolfgang. While I realize that the artist has little recourse with collected material such as this, my own criticism is that my eye stuggles somewhat over the lack of visible nebari.

 

Mike Page-Escallonia rubra var. Woodside

Escallonia rubra var. Woodside

Over the years I've seen dozens of beautifully displayed images from Mike Page, but this is probably favorite one out of the entire lot. We've got gorgeous bark and a great photograph.

 

Mike Page-Kingsville Boxwood

Kingsville Boxwood

Mike sometimes works on a scale that Bernardo Bertolucci would appreciate.

 

Morton Albek-Asplenium tricomanes

Asplenium tricomanes

I have spent a lot of time trying to capture the spirit of my kusamono plantings in photographs. Some species are easier to photograph than others, but of all of them, I find ferns to be perhaps the hardest to capture effectively on film. Here Morton Albek has successed marvellously, by means of a subtle backlighting that captures the delicacy and translucence of his subject.

 

Vance Wood-Pinus sylvestris

Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)

Vance Wood provided this beautifully lit, beautifully displayed, beautifully photograph of one of his trademark mugo pines.

 

Bradley Barlow-Ficus benjamina

Ficus benjamina

Bradley Barlow's ficus is top-notch both as bonsai and as photograph of bonsai. In an effort to offer something in the way of constructive criticism, notice how the straight lines of pot and stand tend to "bulge" just a little a bit. A lens with longer focal length would have largely eliminated this mildly disconcerting effect.

 

Bradley Barlow-Ficus eugenoides

Ficus eugenoides

Bradley's other entry is also excellent - though a comparison between this shot and the previous one is quite instructive. Both are very good photographs, but notice that extra vibrancy that comes from the lighting on the upper canopy of the former tree. Both shots are taken from a bit too high for my taste, but the former suffers very little from it whereas in this one I feel as though I am looking down on the tree somewhat.

 

Budi Sulistyo-Pithecellobium tortum

Brazilian Rain Tree (Pithecellobium tortum)

Budi Sulistyo entered a number of first-rate trees, any or all of which deserve to be included in this gallery. However, I've chosen a single one from them, because in addition to being an amazing example of a rain tree, it is arguably the best photograph that he submitted. Notice how well the stand matches the tree in proportion and visual texture; stand, tree, backdrop, mat, lighting, everything comes together perfectly. This is how it should be done!

 

Pedro Morales-Neea buxifolia

Neea buxifolia

Pedro Morales submitted an excellent photograph of an unusual and beautifully styled tree. I like this one all around. My main concerns involve the soil surface: I'd like to see some moss to complement the relatively lush feel of the tree, and I wonder whether the tree could also be planted a little bit lower in the pot.

 

Hans Vleugels-Galanthus nivalis

Galanthus nivalis

Hans Vleugels submitted this a beautiful kusamono. It's an appealing planting, and I appreciate the care that went into the presentation (though I'd like to see a larger mat). The photograph could be improved somewhat. The flash puts a rather harsh glare on a pot that in person I am sure is much softer and more organic in feel, as befits this composition. More importantly, the focal point of the composition is the flowers - and the highlights in these are blown out (fully white) in the photograph.

 

Hans Vleugels-Juniperus chinensis 'Itoigawa'

Juniperus chinensis 'Itoigawa'

Hans also submitted a very nice shohin. This photograph does a better job of capturing the lush colors and setting an overall balanced image.

 

Roberto Gerpe-Pithecellobium tortum

Brazilian Rain Tree (Pithecellobium tortum)

This is quite an impressive forest from Roberto Gerpe. While I like the idea of balancing the composition through a visual focus at the position of the figurine, I don't particularly like the figurine itself. I also think that the forest would benefit from roughly a 1/3 reduction in height; right now the height overwhelms the spread of the slab base, somewhat destabilizing the full form.

 

Claudio Ratto-Ficus microcarpa

Ficus microcarpa

Claudio Ratto entered this very nice tree, beautifully photographed. He made the interesting decision to match the oval pot with an oval stand. I don't think this is an improvement upon a rectangular stand, but I would be open to discussion on that point.

 

Antoni Payeras-Juniperus phoeniacea thurbinatta

Juniperus phoeniacea thurbinatta

I am very impressed by this entry from Antoni Payeras. The unusual imprint on the lower portion of the pot does something interesting to the visual flow of the image; my eye moves and forth up and down the trunk as it flips from canopy to pot to canopy again.

 

Wendy Heller-Saxifragia Violet and Dwarf Equisetum moss

Saxifragia, violet, dwarf equisetum, moss

This is a really terrific kusamono Wendy Heller; the openness of the composition makes it feel very natural and wild. The colors are lovely, and the use of multiple levels is terrific. If I wanted to pair this with a tree, I would prefer to see a more strongly defined direction of movement. I also think it would benefit from a somewhat larger stand. This one is dwarfed by the pot.

 

Rob Kempinski-Conocarpus erectus

Buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus)

Not only is this a superb buttonwood from Rob Kempinski, but the pot choice is exceptional and the presentation of the moss-covered soil surface is beautifully done.

 

Marcelo Henriques Martins-Pitheceolobium tortum

Brazilian Rain Tree (Pitheceolobium_tortum)

This is a lovely tree, well photographed, from Marcelo Henriques Martins. While the canopy appears to be receeding away from the viewer, that does augment the feeling of power in the trunk. One thing I don't like is the pot - the glaze is too strong and the colors don't harmonize with the tree or bark which should be the highlights of the image.

 

Lynette Smith-Melaleuca linafolia 'Claret Tops'

Tea Tree (Melaleuca linafolia 'Claret Tops')

Showing nice naturalistic style and use of native material, this tree from Lynette Smith is a good example of Australian bonsai. I'd like to see the tree photographed from a lower camera angle, and of course the shot would benefit from cropping out that lower right-hand corner.

 

Will Heath-Coprinus comatus

Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus)

The use of mushrooms grown in situ so ground-breaking that this planting from Will Heath is a must-include image for me. Unfortunately, the movement of the wood base/frame is so powerful that it overshadows the movement and scale of the mushrooms themselves. Still, a very nice piece of work.

 

Enrique Castano-Bromelia

Bromeliad (Bromelia)

I love dynamic, ikebana-inspired inspired kusamono, so it is no surprise that this composition is my pick for the outstanding kusamono of the contest. The movement is exceptional, the framing is perfect. Enrique Castano nailed this one.

 

Enrique Castano-Randia obcordata

Gardenia (Randia obcordata)

Enrique's bonsai are great as well. This is an awesome tree, all the more impressive in its unconventionality. I have mixed feeling about the photograph itself; the halo around the tree seems strange and I wonder if this is the result of post-processing, bad image compression, a lens filter, or some combination of the above.

 

Kathleen Ebey-Juniperus prostrata

Juniperus prostrata

From Kathleen Ebey, this one is very nice all around, both the tree and the photo.

 

Anjali Sinha-Ficus bengalensis

Ficus bengalensis

I get a lovely penjing feel from this otherwise simple and unconventional tree by Anjali Sinha. Charming, and very different from what we usually see. Like a landscape in a few coarse brushstrokes, this captures a forest mood without any pretense of mimetic realism.

 

Eddie Levinthol-Candle forest

Candle forest

Here we have a very nice forest by Eddie Levinthol. I have to confess that I like the planting more than the photograph; the angle is a bit high and more importantly white platform aganist the black backdrop is both distracting and overexposed.

 

Sam Lee-Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea

I really like this tree from Sam Lee; it's a shame that the photograph is cut off on the left side. In addition, a tight crop at the top would help immensely by moving the center of focus out of the physical center of the image:

 

Lee Verhorevoort Juniperus chinesis

Juniperus chinesis

This entry from Lee Verhorevoort is beautifully lit and photographed. Because the photograph is so nice, I'll speculate a bit on how it could be improved even more. I feel that the image would be more effective if the camera were lowered a few inches to the ideal viewing angle. Also, the pot seems to be floating in outer space; a stand or other device for providing a visual baseline would anchor the image and confer additional stablity.

 

Sheldon Savage-Juniperus sp.

Juniperus sp.

From Sheldon Savage, a lovely photo, though I would have cropped differently. (I feel that there is too much empty space behind the tree given its direction of visual flow). The presentation of the tree is generally very good; I like both the choice of pot and the preparation; I also like the care that has been taken with bark and deadwood. This one might have scored higher with additional detail wiring.

 

Not only is this an impressive and inspiring set of trees, but this gallery shows how far the standards have risen for professional and non-professional bonsai photography over the past few years. I would like to personally thank organizers and contestants alike for the time and effort it took to put together marvellous photographic showcase.

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