Jonathan Singer, American

From the Vanity Fair Article by Howard Kaplan, March 25, 2008:

Armed with a digital camera, a decades-old printer, and a jeweler’s tool nicknamed the Gadget, New Jersey podiatrist Jonathan Singer takes pictures of endangered flowers. His extraordinary photographs have impressed Eileen Ford, the Smithsonian, and a Japanese collector with very deep pockets. As Singer’s masterpiece, Botanica Magnifica, prepares for a Washington, D.C., unveiling, the author traces the journey of this unlikely “Master of Light.”

As a young man, Singer, a native New Yorker, was the protégé of Ilya Bolotowsky, the painter. Singer dreamed of becoming an artist, but his Jewish mother got her wish and Singer became a doctor instead—a podiatrist with a practice in Bayonne, New Jersey. He lived in Bayonne with his wife and daughter in a two-story house with light-blue siding. He never stopped being a podiatrist—he still had his practice even now—but all this time he’d kept a hand in the higher realm of art photography. His two favorite subjects were flowers and graffiti. He’d spent many hours with graffiti writers (some of them famous, such as Lady Pink). In Fort Apache, the Bronx, on Sundays, the cops would marvel at this one tall white man blithely wandering the streets with his camera, a Hasselblad with a price tag of $40,000.

This is the push that eventually led Singer to the doors of the Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C., and its then chair of botany, Dr. John Kress.

When not out collecting plants in the jungle, Dr. Kress, a trim, bearded man, spends his days in a window office at the National Museum of Natural History. His office is up in the botany wing, home to 17 full-time scientists and one large herbarium spanning two floors. The botany wing is closed to the public. Most people don’t even know it exists. This lack of identity is an affront to Kress, who sometime back, while still chair of botany, hatched a plan to open a room—the Center for Botanical Art and Illustration—that would give his department a public face. He hadn’t yet moved in earnest on his vision, but it seemed to him that such a room could use a bold new botanical artwork, something commissioned just for the occasion.

Singer was ignorant of any such plan when Kress agreed to meet with him. At Kress’s suggestion, they met “off campus,” at the Addison/Ripley Gallery, in Georgetown. The neutral setting was by design. Pushy artists are always angling to foist their stuff on Kress and his colleagues. Often a piece arrives unsolicited. Once the thing is in the museum, even if it happens to be jammed in some closet, the artist proudly proclaims to the world that his piece titled Whatever has been “accepted” by the Smithsonian. If that was what this guy Singer was like, Kress didn’t want him near the museum.

Kress’s first glimpse of Singer’s photography was not, apparently, the end-all experience it seems to have been for Marc Hachadourian. Singer showed up at the Addison/Ripley with a stack of some two dozen very large prints that were part of a work he called Botanica Magnifica. Recalling that day, Kress now says—picking his words with care for the record—“About half the images were really impressive. The other half were not as impressive.”

--- About the Botanica Magnifica Book:

"Botanica Magnifica" features two hundred and fifty stunning photographs by Hasselblad Laureate-winner Jonathan Singer. Inspired by the size and scope of "Audubon's Birds of America", the original edition of "Botanica Magnifica" was published as double-elephant folio. Now Singer's magnificent photos are available to the public for the first time in this edition, a baby-elephant folio.

The volume is organized into five sections: Orchidaceae, presenting the full diversity of orchids, one of the largest and most exquisite families of flowering plants; Florilegium, portraying the complexity and beauty of flowers; Proteus, named for the shape-changing sea god of Greek mythology because it illustrates plant forms perfectly adapted for survival; Zingiberaceae, a tribute to the ginger family, whose members include both common tropical plants and rarities threatened with extinction; and, Botanicus, a selection of beautiful and bizarre specimens from the renowned botanical research collection of the National Museum at the Smithsonian. Each section is introduced by a gatefold page that displays one extraordinary plant at a luxurious size.

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