Mr. Singer Goes to Washington

A local artist donates his work to the Smithsonian

When we last caught up with Jonathan Singer, we were photographing his home for a “How We Live” story in the Summer 2015 issue of BLP. By far the most interesting thing about the home was the artist and his work.
A retired podiatrist, Singer is a full-time artist, painting everything from graffiti walls to guitars. But it’s his exquisite photographs of flowers, collected on handmade paper in Botanica Magnifica, which now reside in the National Museum of Natural History’s rare book room, that cemented his reputation in the worlds of art and botany.
“They help scientifically to show in such close-up detail useful anatomical characteristics that you can’t always see in dried herbarium specimens,” says Leslie Overstreet, curator of Natural-History, rare books.
Almost a decade ago, Singer asked John Kress, a botanist at the museum, to look at his images of orchids and other flowers. Kress was impressed with the authenticity of the images and invited him to photograph flowers in the museum’s research greenhouse.
He used a digital Hasselblad with a tripod to achieve what critics have called the “superb tonal scale and color control.” He told the New York Times, “I usually take one shot only, within seconds, it’s boom! And I know I’ve got it.”
The project eventually became Botanica Magnifica—250 floral images in five volumes. He used the same printing method as that used in Audubon’s “Birds of America,” known as hand-pressed, double elephant folio. His work is displayed alongside Audubon’s.
He is the recipient of the Linnaeus silver medal from The Swedish Royal Academy and is a Hasselblad Prize Laureate.
In 2012, he released a second book, Fine Bonsai: Art and Nature.

A New Direction

Last summer, Singer made another donation, Photo Nuage, 56 photographic prints, double-elephant size, in a custom-made clamshell box. Jonathan and his wife, Marcia, a retired Bayonne art teacher, went in person to make the gift. Museum dignitaries and staff were on hand to celebrate the gift and view the photographs.
These images are a departure from the scientific perfection of his Botanica Magnifica. These are more abstract and stylized.
“These are amazing photographs,” says Overstreet. The book is “an incredible production,” she says. “The botanical images are closer to our art photography, almost abstract studies of light, showing color and texture.”
She describes them as “stunning enhancements or revisionings” of Singer’s botanical photography.

An Idea Takes Root

Singer, who is 67, didn’t pursue photography in earnest until around 13 years ago when he received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, which forced him to give up surgery but not photography. To offset the tremors, he puts the cable release in his mouth and manually focuses with his good hand.
Though a successful surgeon, the Podiatric Medicine gig was a successful ploy by Singer’s mother to keep him out of the Vietnam draft.
Art was his first love. Prior to going to medical school, he studied under the abstract painter Ilya Bolotowsky at Southampton College on Long Island.
Marcia Singer says that Photo Nuage “is a blend of the influences of Ilya Bolotowsky, Alfred Steiglitz, and Georgia O’Keefe. All the artists that Jonathan came into contact with at Southampton College influenced his creation of his final style.”—Kate Rounds


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group