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Monday, October 19, 2009

Blind in one eye - English

This was published at Art of Bonsai Project in January 2007. At that time I could not believe some statements in some bonsai forums and wondered how otherwise reasonable folks could be so wrong in their judgement about quality of bonsai. One of my dearest enemies annoyed me the most. It is written for him.

Blind in one eye

It is to be expected that a mother would always defend her son and she would always think that he is better in every respect than he is seen with more objective eyes. This is human nature and we forgive her.

It is to be expected that in general bonsai folks think somewhat higher of their own trees than they really should. This is human nature and we forgive them.

It is to be expected that most people feel somewhat higher about the bonsai of their nation in general than is really called for if looked at objectively. This is human nature and we forgive them.

What really strikes me is when I meet otherwise reasonable, intelligent, cultivated and learned people who are utterly unreasonable about judging their own trees. Well again it is human nature to be unable to judge yourself, but one should still expect that the gap between reality and the personal perception of reality should not be all too wide. Well with some people this is the way they are, but they are a minority in the general population. Why do there seem to be more in the bonsai world who are blind in one eye?

In Germany we are having judged shows since more than twenty years. The big German convention always was a judged show and the results were printed in the club magazine and recently are shown on the internet. On my travels I met more people than I would have liked who went at length to explain to me how terrible this all was and how some of their trees or the better ones of their local club would win awards all over the place. If they only wanted to show them, of course.

When I have a look at the trees that they were speaking about I invariably am cringing. How do I explain to this otherwise reasonable person that he is wrong here - not a bit wrong, but TOTALLY wrong. As a rule the trees that are shown to me should not at all enter the show because there are minimal standards for entering and winning an award is totally out of the question.

I have come to the conclusion that there is more than general human nature to this. This phenomenon usually occurs when people had very little or no exposure to the real bonsai world other than with pictures. We all have had this experience that a certain tree that was overwhelming in reality but did not look very good in a picture, it even looked very mediocre. This is due to several reasons:

Reasons that lie in the photographs:
It is very difficult to make a good picture of a bonsai, just as it is to make a good portrait picture of a person.
Even very experienced general photographers come up with lousy bonsai pictures quite often.
Bonsai is a three dimensional sculpture and very often looks so good because of transparency and depth of the composition. A photograph is two dimensional by nature and thus the impact of three-dimensionality and depth gets lost.
Quite often trees look good on pictures which are not really so good in reality. These usually are trees that are built two-dimensionally. The picture looks just as the tree is built. What in reality is a fault is not so on the photograph.
Because of lack of real good bonsai pictures, often rather lousy photographs have to be shown to show at least something.
Reasons that lie in the viewer:
Now if a person is not aware of these phenomena he will usually way underestimate bonsai that he has only seen on pictures. I have this deja-vu so often when people who think they "know" certain trees from pictures and see them first in an exhibit are amazed at how much more impact they have in reality.
Now they certainly have seen their own trees and those of their friends in reality. As said before it is human nature to see your own trees in a rosy light and value them higher than they really deserve. And it is human nature and to be expected. A bonsai designer must have a vision of the future of the tree. The vision is often so strong that the reality is overseen.

Now combine these two:

Trees that appear worse or much worse than they really are, are compared to trees that in the mind of the enthusiast are better than they really are. The discrepancy can be enormous.

The result is that quite often trees are compared that should not really be compared without giving this a lot of thought. People compare the trees that they know in reality with pictures of trees. If exactly the same trees were set side by side it should be visible to most where the difference is. But it does not happen. There are many reasons why it does not happen and most are respectable. But the comparison does happen. And thus otherwise reasonable people come to outlandish judgments. But this is even true of people who do really have exposure to exhibits and have somewhat of an overview of what is going on in the bonsai world - well, what is the bonsai world for them, which is regional of even national, but still limited. Then still the same phenomenon applies. They look at magazines, at books and compare the pictures about trees from all over the world with bonsai that they have seen in reality. The result is often uncalled for complacency. Even with otherwise modest and sharp folks.

The internet has brought the world together. It certainly has brought the bonsai world together. It has opened the eyes of people considerably. But often it has not done so enough. This is due to the phenomena that I have pointed out.


  1. Hi Walter:
    After reading your a.m. article I realize that I have the big problem you are talking about regarding taking pictures of my own bonsai. The pictures do not show at all the structure of the tree. I´ve tried taking the pictures from different angles, heights, lights, etc. It does not work. Is there a trick you could give me so the trees look better on pictures?
    Best regards
    Ingrid Seippel

  2. Oh well,

    Ingrid, if I only knew.