Rare flowers, exquisite detail figure in N.J. photographer’s work

Curator Karen Reeds is a natural science historian, but when she stands in a ground-floor gallery of the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, before an enormous photograph of a rare Masdevallia titan orchid, she sees it as fine art.


“The image is about 5 1/2 feet tall, would you say?” said Reeds, standing in front of a Jonathan Singer photograph that is mostly black, with an extreme closeup of a thin orchid delicately stretched diagonally, corner to corner.

“The actual flower is about 2 inches long. It’s tiny. It grows down in the forest floor. You don’t see it, unless you look closely. This technique of Jonathan’s forces you to look carefully at the orchid,” she says. “Look at that blossom and think, what is going on?”

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Singer is a Bayonne, N.J.- based photographer who does for flowers what John James Audubon did for birds. In 2008, he published “Botanica Magnifica,” a massive photography collection that walks the line between science and art. Between “Gray’s Anatomy” and Georgia O’Keeffe.

“You can see things in these flowers that are blown up so enormously, yet are crisp and clear, that you would not be able to see with the naked eye,” said Reeds. “I, as a historian of botany, have learned a lot about botany from these pictures.”

Many of the flowers Singer photographs are extremely rare. He travels the world — through both wild jungles and private gardens — with researchers from the Smithsonian Institution.

He meticulously arranges his shots, sets each flower against a black background, fixes the lighting,  then snaps the shutter exactly once. He does not take backup shots.

The photographer, himself, could not visit the museum with Reeds because Singer suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and is currently recovering from brain surgery. Reeds explains the disease is part of the reason he works so quickly.

“If you are under medication for Parkinson’s, you have time when you have control over your movements, but then the medication wears off, and you lose that control. So he has to move fast when he has the opportunity with the medication.

Botanica Magnifica: Photographs by Jonathan Singer” continues at the State Museum until Aug. 26. The exhibition also features some of his work with miniature bonsai trees, which will be published in his newest book at the end of August.

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