Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932)

 

From 1898 to 1930 Blossfeldt taught at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Berlin (Karl Blossfeldt | MoMA (s.d.). He did not consider himself as a photographer, instead an “enthusiastic amateur … took pictures with a home-made wooden camera, using his images as a teaching aid in the drawing classes he gave” Adam (2014 p19). He took photographs of plants which he enlarged to show his students the “forms and patterns he discovered in the natural world” (Murata 2014 p1).

According to Adam (2014) we currently only know of a few hundred images taken by Blossfeldt, but it is thought that he may have taken around 6,000 plant pictures altogether.

Murata (2014) describes how, in 1925, some of Blossfeldt’s images were exhibited at the school at which he taught, and it may have been that this was seen by Karl Nierendorf, an influential collector and owner of an art gallery. In 1926 Blossfeldt had his first exhibition outside of academic settings at Galerie Nierendorf, Berlin. The exhibition was very successful; it led to the publication of Blossfeldt’s first book Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) in 1928 and to the inclusion of Blossfeldt’s work in the prestigious exhibitions Fotografie der Gegenwart and Film und Foto, both in 1929. Two further books of Blossfeldt’s images were produced; Wundergarten der Natur (The Magic Garden of Nature) in 1932 and, published posthumously in 1942, Wunder in der Natur (Magic in Nature).

Blossfeldt’s work can be stark, concentrating on the forms and patterns of the plants that he is photographing. Stepan (1999 p24) considers that “Blossfeldt’s plant photographs are the best examples of photography following the precepts of Neue Sachlichkeit”. Often translated as ‘New Objectivity’ it originated in Germany in about 1918. It is described by Murray (1997 p368) as “a reaction against Expressionism” and where “a new attention to realistic representation of actual objects in a detailed way – thus also reacting against the muzziness of Impressionism”. This may be a little misleading as, while it undoubtedly stood for realism and objectivity, Neue Sachlichkeit is also renowned for its biting political comment; “its major trend involved the use of meticulous detail and violent satire to portray the face of evil” (Chilvers 2009 p439). The movement is most associated with the painters Otto Dix and George Grosz. Long (2016) places Blossfeldt’s work as part of the “inter-war German Neues Sehen (New Vision) movement”. This movement “aimed to look at the world through the camera lens, using it as a mirror to the reality of the everyday” Tate (s.d.). The Neues Sehen was most closely associated with the work of the Bauhaus and the photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

Karl Blossfeldt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To me Blossfeldt’s images are all about form, pattern and rhythm, which aren’t always visible to the naked eye, being revealed by the magnification used. Generally, they are taken from the front, occasionally from above. All his images are monochrome and photographed against a plain, grey background, usually light grey but sometimes dark. Also, the lighting of the subject is very flat and diffused, no suggestion of chiaroscuro here. The effect of this is to concentrate the viewer’s attention on the shapes and patterns of the plants being displayed. The plants are totally out of context, not in their natural setting, which adds a sense of detachment or abstraction and makes it easier to consider their geometry rather than regarding them as natural objects. It makes it a much more analytical process.

The success of the image depends on the choice of subject. Blossfeldt has very carefully selected the plants he photographed, choosing a specimen that displays an architecture not normally seen in its usual context. This is perfectly displayed in his image of a Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum).

We are used to seeing fern leaves just as they start to unroll, but the success of this image lies as much in the composition as in the natural forms of the ferns. Four fern leaves in the background are counterbalanced by two leaves in front which face in the opposite direction. This attracts the interest of the viewer in working out the composition compared to if the leaves had all been facing the same way. It adds a counteraction to the rhythm of the scene.

Karl Blossfeldt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is also a good example of Blossfeldt’s use of the ‘architecture’ of the plants, it is easy to see the influence this may have had on Art Nouveau designs.

Adam (2017 p22) describes how Blossfeldt worked against the photographic fashion of the time, stating that when he “started out on his detailed plant documentation, pictorialist soft focus was in vogue, yet when he concluded his life’s work, his conception of the image was not only contemporary, but was considered progressive”. Blossfeldts’ work received considerable praise from Walter Benjamin “These photographs reveal an unsuspected horde of analogies and forms in the existence of plants. Only the photograph is capable of this” (Benjamin 2008:272). 

Having studied Blossfeldt’s work I have made my own images, not wanting to copy what he did, but to see how I would be influenced by his work. I did not necessarily choose close-ups for all the images, although the majority were. I chose a plain background and used monochrome, as Blossfeldt did, to focus attention on the structures of the plant. Generally, I took a frontal view of the subject with even lighting, taking care in the composition of the individual plant. Most of all though, I tried to select the subject plants very carefully for the interest in form or pattern that they provided.

REFERENCES

Abbaspour, M. (s.d.) Karl Blossfeldt | Object:Photo | MoMA. At: https://www.moma.org/interactives/objectphoto/artists/24413.html (Accessed on 18 November 2019)

Adam, H. (2017) Karl Blossfeldt: the complete published work. Koln: Taschen.

Benjamin, W. (2008) ‘News About Flowers’  In: Jennings, Doherty & Levin (ed.) .The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Translated by H. Eiland, R. Livingstone & E. Jephcott, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp.271–273.

Blossfeldt, K. and Adam, H.-C. (2017) Karl Blossfeldt: the complete published work. Koln: Taschen.

Chilvers, I. (2009) The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (4th Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Karl Blossfeldt (2016) At: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/karl-blossfeldt?all/all/all/all/0 (Accessed on 18 November 2019)

Karl Blossfeldt (s.d.) At: https://www.michaelhoppengallery.com/artists/58-karl-blossfeldt/overview/ (Accessed on 18 November 2019)

Karl Blossfeldt | artnet (s.d.) At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/karl-blossfeldt/ (Accessed on 18 November 2019)

Karl Blossfeldt’s Urformen der Kunst (1928) (2019) At: https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/karl-blossfeldts-urformen-der-kunst-1928/ (Accessed on 18 November 2019)

Long, J. (2016) Blossfeldt, Karl (1865–1932) – Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. At: https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/blossfeldt-karl-1865-1932 (Accessed on 20 November 2019)

Murata, H. (s.d.) ‘Material Forms in Nature: The Photographs of Karl Blossfeldt’ At: https://www.moma.org/interactives/objectphoto/assets/essays/Murata.pdf

Murray, P. and Murray, L. (1997) The Penguin dictionary of art and artists (7th Edition). London: Penguin Books.

Stepan, P. (1999) Icons of photography: the 20th century. Munich: Prestel Pub.

Tate (s.d.) The New Vision – Art Term | Tate. At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/t/new-vision (Accessed on 20 November 2019)