Blossfeld, formerly trained in sculpture1, used a camera he altered to enlarge the subjects and produce photographs of plants in sharp detail, portraying the botanical specimens he gathered in a sculptural way. Through clean backgrounds and diffused lighting that emphasized volume, he accentuated their form. Moreover, Blossfeldt most often used details of his negatives to produce prints while framing the most intriguing parts.2
This sculptural geometric and somewhat ascetic way of presenting plants removed from their natural context and surroundings is not accidental as it is evident that Blossfeldt carefully retouched the photographs.3 He and his mentor Moritz Meurer used them as drawing templates and reduced them to ornaments used by craftsmen and manufacturers, characteristic of Jugendstil and Art Noveau. Consequently, they created a collection of forms and patterns discovered in plants they hoped could inspire students just as Meurer believed they inspired artists of the ancient in the past.
Moritz Meurer was the first to publish Karl Blossfeldt’s photographs, altough unattributed, in 18964 in his publication Die Ursprungsformen des griechischen Akanthusornamentes und ihre natürlichen Vorbilder (Georg Reimer, Berlin,1896). Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants inspired Meurer as he, just like Goethe, visited Italy to study the vegetation around Rome. Meurer was highly enthusiastic about exploring the shapes of plants to discover inspiration for new art and found in Blossfeldt – who grew up close to nature, a kindred spirit for his undertakings. From 1885 Meurer lead an art school reform that called for the introduction of scientific nature study courses in all German art schools.5
The teaching method Meurer employed during his classes consisted of teaching the students how to represent the image of the plant, drawing plants from various perspectives, and later, when the students internalized the characteristics of their subjects, they moved on to drawing the plants from memory. He accompanied the drawing classes with lectures on morphology6, the study of form, which was prominent at the time as it is evident in the works of Jay Hambridge, Theodore Cook, Mattila Ghyka, and D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson.
Meurer taught his students “how ancient civilizations inspired themselves directly at nature’s inexhaustible treasure trove of forms, how they adapted plant forms to their respective purposes and materials, and how these forms were taken over and transformed by later generations.”7 Therefore, Blossfeldt’s work of documenting plant forms has to be recognized not just in the context of didactic presentation of plant forms but also as a search for the formative principles of nature.8
Blossfeldt became a teacher himself and continued Meurer’s work by introducing the subject Modeling From Living Plants in 1899 to the Charlottenburg School of Arts and Crafts in Berlin, where he was situated.4 As Kathrin Schönegg pointed out, the reason why Blossfeldt’s photographic aesthetics hardly changed during the thirty years he was creating them, and the reason he rarely dated his photographs is that he mainly used them in the classroom.8 Because using fresh and alive plant specimens during his classes was troublesome, he used his photographs to protect “the ephemeral forms of nature” for his teachings.3 On the use of plant photographs, Blossfeldt wrote in 1906:
“There plants are a treasure trove of forms — one which is carelessly overlooked only because the scale of shapes fails to catch the eye and sometimes this makes the forms hard to identify. But that is precisely what these photographs are intended to do — to portray diminutive forms on a convenient scale and encourage students to pay them more attention.”9
Blossfeldt pruned and arranged the plants to emphasize the abstract and geometric nature of their shapes. Hence, we recognize that he was photographing arrangements and artificial constructions and was not presenting objective recordings.10 Kathrin Schönegg points out how Blossfeldt thereby pushed the photographic medium in a peculiar tension field between idealized abstracted essence and objective documentation. So it is evident that he was concerned about more than just presenting different plant forms and tried to illustrate a genesis of forms with an assumption that all living things depend upon the same basic principles. As he searched after these original natural forms, which he believed influenced ornamentation – what Meurer’s work was trying to emphasize, he created photographs of plants that stand out physically and show analogies with ornamental structures. Schönegg asserts that his plant photographs are abstracted essences – generalized statements that abstract from the individual to present the general and common.8
Hanako Murata nicely summed up the praise of his meticulous photography work in her essay: “Blossfeldt’s remarkable images may appear simple, reflective in a way of the often small, humble plant forms they depict. But if the photographer brought these forms to a grander scale in the service of making visible what many of his students might otherwise overlook, he also produced stunning images whose elegant simplicity nevertheless was the product of painstaking effort.”3
Meurer’s and Blossfeld’s surge to perceive forms found in nature in a more reductionist and abstract way strongly resonate with August Endell’s writings published in 1896: “We all have to learn how to see in terms of pure colors and forms, and not think about what they might depict. We also need to feel emotions that arise from seeing the colors and forms, to let these emotions reach our consciousness.”11
Endell’s theory about a new art based on abstract forms that evoke feelings just like music, among others, inspired Kandinsky, who encountered it when he came to Munich from his native Russia in 1892.12 In The Beauty of Forms and Decorative Art (1898), he wrote: “We are at the beginning of totally new art, an art with forms that mean nothing and remind one of nothing and represent nothing. Yet these forms can move our souls so strongly, as before only music could do.”13
That same year Endell wrote in another essay: “We must learn to look at a tree root, a stem, or a leaf and to see its form – in and of itself – and then feel any changes in that form. If we learn how to look at nature this way, a new, unfamiliar universe emerges. […] This is the power of forms. They awaken our inner feelings directly, and it is not necessary to posit any other psychological process between forms and feelings.”12
Although Blossfeldt considered his photographs to be a teaching aid and not art objects themselves, quite later on in his career, in 1926, his work became publicly acclaimed through an exhibition curated by Karl Nierendorf that showed Blossfeldts photographs along with sculptures from Africa and New Guinea and work by the artist Richard Janthur. The Berlin-based gallerist later published Blossfeldt’s first book Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) that contained 120 of his plant photographs.14
Karl Nierendorf wrote the introduction to Blossfeldts Art Forms in Nature he published, claiming how the new technologies such as the microscope bring us closer to the natural world – a position that the industrial era interrupted.
The exhibition sparked interest, and Walter Benjamin, an established art critic at the time, published a review of Blossfelds work in 1928 in an essay Neues von Blumen (News from Flowers). Influenced by surrealism while residing in Paris, he wrote: “Inner pictorial necessities jump towards us from every chalice and every leaf, which as metamorphoses hold the last word in all phases and stages of what is created.”15
Benjamin followed Nierendorf’s remark on how Blossfeldt’s photographs of plants remind us of what they resemble. Perhaps we can attribute it to Goethe’s Urphänomen – the primal image which occurs in the unfolding of individual phenomena. Using Goethe’s morphological method, Benjamin showed us how photographical techniques contribute to unveiling the reality of analogies and forms and formulated the concept of the optical unconscious. In this context he mentioned Blossfeldt again in A Short History of Photography:
“Photography makes aware for the first time the optical unconscious, just as psycho-analysis discloses the instinctual unconscious. Structural qualities, cellular tissues, which form the natural business of technology and medicine are all much more closely related to the camera than to the atmospheric landscape or the expressive portrait. At the same time photography uncovers in this material physiognomic aspects of pictorial words which live in the smallest things, perceptible yet covert enough to find shelter in daydreams, but which, once enlarged and capable of formulation, show the difference between technology and magic to be entirely a matter of historical variables. Thus Blossfeldt, in his astonishing plant photography, revealed the most ancient column forms in pewter-glass, totem-poles in ten times magnified sprigs of chestnut and acorn, gothic tracery in teasel.”16
Similarly, Walter Benjamin preceded these writings in his review of Blossfeldt’s Art Forms in Nature in 1928:
“Even the most passive observer would be thrilled to see that the enlargement of parts of plants visible could be as extraordinary as plant cells glimpsed through a microscope. When we remember that Klee and, even more, Kandinsky worked for so long on the elaboration of forms which only the intervention of the microscope could – brusquely and violently – reveal to us, we notice that these enlargements of plants also contain original stylistic forms.”15
The British painter Paul Nash saw how Blossfeldt’s photographs influenced British Modernist Sculpture by providing the artists with biomorphic forms that may have inspired them.
In his essay Language of Flowers that he illustrated with Blossfeldts photographs, Georges Bataille delves further into the optical unconscious. He writes how it is impossible to reject the symbolic interpretation of objects as our mind weaves connections between things we find correspondences, jet questions the validity of abstractions. He critiques abstracting as subtracting from values of objects and reducing them to mise-en-scène – artificial settups. On this Andre Breton in his Second Surrealist Manifesto (1930), objected that: “It remains none of the less true that the rose, stripped of its petals, remains the rose.”17
Blossfeldt himself was wary of claims that ascribed metaphors to his work. It seems that such associations were unintended. In the foreword of his second book (Wundergarten der Natur / Magical Garden of Nature, 1932), he wrote that he did not want to attach any particular significance to his pictorial documentation of plants. Adding how he thinks that art and science can find their best teacher in nature – because forms built by nature are both practical, expedient, and purposeful.18
It was not the first time his images were put in radically different contexts and ascribed different meanings than he had in mind while taking them. In 1929 the Bauhaus educator Laszlo Moholy-Nagy recognized how Karl Blossfeldt’s work influenced the photographers of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and included his work in the exhibition Film und Foto.
New Objectivity believed photography allowed us to see the world more objectively because the picture taken by the camera presents the image to the human mind unmediated by human error and bias. The artists gathered within the movement taught the objective world itself already displays glimpses of beauty, so the artist doesn’t need to create but find, capture and present whatever they want to with their camera.
Walter Benjamin opposed the movement criticizing the apolitical nature of most of these works claiming that while beauty is undoubtedly present in these forms, it is impossible to grasp the human social context. Jet, the photographer August Sanders differed from other artists of New Objectivity as he photographed humans, giving all his subjects equal space in presentation they would otherwise hardly get in their day-to-day lives.
The directness, factuality, and formality of Blossfeldt’s work adjoin it to the modes of New Objectivity. Jet, as Ian Walker points out, “the shift to a Surrealist reading of Blossfeldt’s pictures as strange and unnerving is a step sideways and seems not so much an extension as a distortion of the values that underpinned the work.”19
Undoubtedly, at least some of the surrealist artists at the time were inspired by what they saw in Blossfeldt’s images even though these interpretations were unintended by Blosfeldt, and he might have been unaware of such associations.
Herbarium, a series consisting of 28 images by Joan Fontcuberta, who 1985, was quite evidently inspired by Surrealism just as much as by Blossfeldt, presented plant forms photographed in a close-up with white backgrounds and is an account of a contemporary artist inspired by his work. The Surrealist twist becomes apparent just upon close inspection. Then, it becomes evident that these pseudo-plants were “constructed from industrial debris, pieces of plastic, bones, plant parts and animal limbs from many different species which he would find as he roamed the industrial zones around Barcelona”.20
Fontcuberta wants us to become conscious of the ambiguity of photography, to become healthy skeptical, presenting us a disillusionment with the world of an “artificial kind of nature” we are immersed in today – a nature man has built for himself rather than merely found. Fontcuberta notes his relation to Blossfeldt: “For Blossfeldt the camera was a tool to celebrate nature; for me, it is a way to create fiction.”21 Today “photography no longer documents, it meta documents.”.20 Fontcuberta’s work presents both admiration and skepticism towards what we describe as the natural world.
The industrial age brought forth a horrendous leap from the natural environment. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the critics of Blossfeldt have seen first and foremost other things in his plant forms. They were terrified and surprised at the sights of enlarged plants. Unlike the ancients that treasured plants as their lives deeply entwined, they perceived plants as phantoms that envisioned things before hidden in their optical unconscious. Plants themselves were something distant and foreign to them. They were something they usually don’t fully perceive and give attention to but rather take for granted.
Commensurate with the period he worked in, Blossfeldt aimed to divert people’s attention back to nature. Nowadays, Foncuberta’s work is a twist and critique of perceiving nature in mediated form and a wake-up call from our ignorance of the realities of the natural world.
[¹]^ Blossfeldt was trained at Mädgesprung ironworks and later studied at the Berlin Museum of Arts and Crafts. (Between Ornament and New Objectivity: The Plant Photography of Karl Blossfeldt by Hans Christian Adam in Karl Blossfeldt, 1865 – 1932: The Complete Published Work by Hans Christian Adam, Taschen, Köln 1999)
[²]^ Rajka Knipper: The Karl Blossfeldt Colection at the Berlin University of the Arts: teaching Material for Arts and Crafts Classes, SK Stiftung Kultur, Die Photographische Sammlung 2009, Universität der Künste, Berlin https://www.photographie-sk-kultur.de/fileadmin/user_upload/download/SK_PS_Aufsatz_Knipper_engl_korrekturen.pdf
[³]^ Hanako Murata, Material Forms in Nature: The Photographs of Karl Blossfeldt 2014 – https://artblart.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/murata.pdf)
^ Between Ornament and New Objectivity: The Plant Photography of Karl Blossfeldt by Hans Christian Adam in Karl Blossfeldt, 1865 – 1932: The Complete Published Work by Hans Christian Adam, Taschen, Köln 1999
^ “We need to make sure that youngsters look at nature and think about what they see, delve lovingly into its myriad, even microscopically small forms, and learn to recognize its laws and beauty. […] We need to […] inject more life and significance into arts and crafts courses by gearing methods from the outset more to a joint educational quest and comparative study of art and natural forms.” (Moritz Meurer: Ausstellung im Kunstgewerbemuseum”, in: Dresdner Anzeiger, 6 December 1890. in Nancy Tannenberger: From Waldenburg to Rome: the Painter and art School Reformer Moritz Meurer (1839 -1916); SK Stiftung Kultur, Die Photographische Sammlung 2009, Universität der Künste, Berlin)
^ Nancy Tannenberger: From Waldenburg to Rome: the Painter and art School Reformer Moritz Meurer (1839 – 1916); SK Stiftung Kultur, Die Photographische Sammlung 2009, Universität der Künste, Berlin https://www.photographie-sk-kultur.de/fileadmin/user_upload/download/SK_PS_Aufsatz_Tanneberger_eng_20100615.pdf
^ Karl Blossfeldt, Aus der Werkstatt der Natur , S. 3, Auszug aus dem unveröffentlichten Manuskript des Karl Blossfeldt Archivs, Ann und Jürgen Wilde, published in: Konstruktionen von Natur. Von Blossfeldt zur Virtualität, hg. v. Akademie der Künste Berlin, edited by Angela Lammert, Berlin 2001, S. 111-114, S. 112.
^ Kathrin Schönegg, Karl Blossfeldts Pflanzenaufnamen als Typusphotographien, Metamorphosen zwischen Kunst und Natur, objektivem dokument und normativer Konstruktion, 2011, https://edoc.hu-berlin.de/bitstream/handle/18452/7589/schoenegg.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
^ Blossfeldt, letter of 1906, quoted in Schubert, “Karl Blossfeldt” pp. 8– 9, 27– 28.
^ Konstruktionen von Natur. Von Blossfeldt zur Virtualität, hg. v. Akademie der Künste Berlin, zusammengestellt von Angela Lammert, Berlin, 2001, S. 9-11, S. 9.
^ August Endell, Um die Schönheit, 1896.
^ August Endell, Formenschönheit und dekorative Kunst, Dekorative Kunst, 1898
^ August Endell, The Beauty of Forms and Decorative Art (1898)
^ Walter Benjamin, Neues von Blumen, 1928, https://www.textlog.de/benjamin-kritik-neues-blumen-urformen-kunst.html
^ Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Photography was originally published in The Literarische Welt of 18.9., 25.9. and 2.10.1931. https://monoskop.org/images/7/79/Benjamin_Walter_1931_1972_A_Short_History_of_Photography.pdf
^ André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969, p. 186
^ Karl Blossfeldt, Zu meinen Bildern, in: Wundergarten der Natur, Neue Bilddokumente schöner Planzenformen. (Magic Garden of Nature), Berlin, Verlag fur Kunstwissenschaft, 1932.
^ Ian Walker, Blossfeldt and Surrealism, Photoresearcher No. 11, April 2018, www.eshph.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/pr_no_11.pdf
^ Joan Fontcuberta, Contranatura. Alicante: Museo de la Universidad de Alicante, 2001, p. 24.
^ Joan Fontcuberta, ‘Spanish Photography: A Historical Overview.’In Betty Hahn (ed.), Contemporary Spanish Photography, Albuquerque: University of NewMexico, 1987, p. 12.