Noted botanical photographer Steven Foster passes away suddenly

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Steven Foster's intimate portraits of plants graced the pages of the American Botanical Council's peer-reviewed journal HerbalGram.  Photo courtesy of ABC.
Steven Foster's intimate portraits of plants graced the pages of the American Botanical Council's peer-reviewed journal HerbalGram. Photo courtesy of ABC.

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Noted botanical photographer and herbal medicine expert Steven Foster passed away unexpectedly over the weekend, the American Botanical Council reported today.

Foster was found dead yesterday at his home in Eureka Springs, AR.  He was 64. Further details were not available as of publication time.

Self taught in herbal lore, photography

Foster, who was one of the very early contributors to HerbalGram​, ABC’s peer reviewed journal, was a self-taught expert on botanicals.  Despite having no advanced degree, Foster knew as much or more about the botany and uses of medicinal plants than did many academics, said ABC founder and executive director Mark Blumenthal.

And Foster cultivated a very close up and detailed style of botanical photography.  His vivid and intimate portraits of plants could be compared at the same level to some of the great portrait photographers who chose people as their subjects, such as Annie Leibovitz or Richard Avedon.

Author of 19 books

foster mugshot

“Steven was one of the most brilliant people in the entire American and international herb community. The author or co-author of 19 books and hundreds of articles, and a true master of the herbal literature, especially the Eclectic medical literature of the late 19th and early 20th century, Steven was also a renowned photographer of herbs and medicinal plants with an eye for beauty in every leaf and flower who was unparalleled in the global botanical community,” ​Blumenthal said.

“His keen eye for plants and his ability to photograph them produced a treasure of thousands of beautiful high-quality photos that graced the pages of numerous books and magazine articles,”​ he added.

ABC retrospective

According to ABC, Foster’s early education in the lore and uses of herbs could be traced to time spent in a Shaker community in Maine that was also coincidentally one of the oldest herbal businesses in the country, having been established in 1799.

Foster’s most recent written contribution to HerbalGram​ was a detailed monograph on the saw palmetto trade​.

A retrospective of Foster’s career can be found on the ABC website​.  

"A kind and generous soul"

Roy Upton, executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, said: “By the time I met Steven Foster in 1981 at the earliest of Breitenbush herbal gatherings (Oregon), he was already expert in so many things herbal; traditional Shaker herbal medicine, history, literature, and of course photography.

“Over the proceeding decades it was clear he had a critical mind in interpreting the herbal medicine literature always asking, “how do you know?” questions, the questions we all have to ask when separating herbal fact from fiction.

“While he was not a practitioner, Steven was a founding member of the American Herbalists Guild (AHG) in 1989, the primary organization in the United States representing medical herbalists, out of a desire to advance the medical herbalist profession in the US.

“Steven was always generous with his photography, sharing it with many in need of quality images for their works, such as for American Herbal Pharmacopoeia monographs. He also reviewed many a section of various monographs, sharing his expertise selflessly. I am not sure there was ever an issue of the American Botanical Council’s HerbalGram that did not include one, and usually, multiple of Steven Foster photographs.

“Every generation of every profession has those special souls who give a richness to the profession beyond the norm. Steven Foster was such a soul; he provided a quality of work to our herbal generation that will be remembered for the many contributions he made and simply for the kind and generous soul of a person he was. Words are inadequate to express the sadness of such loss.”

Elan Sudberg, CEO of Alkemist Labs, said: "Steven Foster will be sorely missed. To me he was a friend colleague and inspiration and constantly fed my passion for macro photography of plants.  To the industry he was the man behind most of the most beautifully captured medicinal plants.  No one matches his work.  We will all miss him."​  

Michael McGuffin, President of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), said: “I cannot today match the eloquence of others who have described Steven in years gone by.

“In her preface to Steven’s 1984 book Herbal Bounty, the esteemed botanist Dr. Shiu Ying Hu described a conversation with Steven as reminding her of “something that Confucius said two thousand years ago: ‘In any company of three persons, there must be one who can be my teacher’…I found in Steven Foster a teacher who could share a profound knowledge of economic botany, particularly in the cultivation and uses of herbs.” In the decades since then, Steven never stopped being a teacher to so many of us who had the honor of spending time with him.

”Some years later, when Steven was presented with the AHPA Herbal Insight Award in 2008 we commented that his “ability to capture the elegance and intimacy of the ‘human-plant relationship’ continues to astound.” In the years since then, Steven never stopped astounding us all – with his art, his knowledge, and his passion for and commitment to the plant world.

“Steven was a giant in the herbal community for almost half a century. To say he will be missed is both true and a gross understatement – he is irreplaceable,” ​added McGuffin.

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