Art + Botany: Karl Blossfeldt

Art + Botany: Karl Blossfeldt

March 17, 2011
Photo by: Karl Blossfeldt

Main photo (L-R): Wolfsbane, Monkshood (Aconitum napellus); Winter horsetail (Equisetum hiemale); American maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum)

The plant never lapses into mere arid functionalism; it fashions and shapes according to logic and suitability, and with its primeval force compels everything to attain the highest artistic form.—Karl Blossfeldt

After a million years of trial and error, nature has produced well-functioning shapes, but human huistory is much too short to compete with nature's richness in creating functional forms.—László Moholy-Nagy

When he began documenting plant specimens, Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932) did not consider himself a photographer, nor an expert in the natural world. The German sculpture instructor was compiling a teaching tool: a survey of natural forms that would serve as inspiration and reference for his students. Examined as a whole, the collection would reveal the ways in which our built environment is informed by forms in the natural world. 


(L-R): Thistle (Cirsium canum); Drooping Avens (Geum rivale); Bear's Breech (Acanthus mollis)

In the thirty-five years that followed, Blossfeldt made almost 6,000 photographic prints of plants both ubiquitous and exotic (the latter he collected in Italy, Greece, and North Africa). Always adhering to the academic imperative, Blossfeldt developed a pedagogic methodology that shifted his work from the strictly didactic to the stunningly aesthetic. He treated his specimens with the precision of an 18th-century plant taxonomist, removing each plant from its habitat and documenting it on a uniformly blank background. His consistency of angle (a sharp side perspective, seldom from an overhead view) and lighting (natural light from northern windows) resulted in a collection of photographs that are, alternately, unmistakably plants, and, anything but.   


(L-R): Bog Rhubarb (Petasites officinalis); Comfrey (Symphytum officinale); Bourgati's Eryngo (Eryngium bourgatii)

Blossfeldt approached his specimens as both a functional Constructivist, and a poetic Surrealist. He believed that "the plant must be valued as a totally artistic and architectural structure." This synthesis of aesthetic theories is what gives Blossfeldt's collection its unique gestalt. The black and white photogravure prints are a catalog of buds, seed cases, leaves, yet they also read as a horizon line of a botanic city. The monochromatic portraits, arranged with precise posture and photographed against stark backgrounds, convey the formidable austerity of architectural monoliths, or sculpted ironwork. Indeed, Blossfeldt's photographs depict his botanic specimens as fantastically large, and also meticulously designed. Photographing in turn-of-the-century Berlin, he was embedded in the dialogues of the New Objectivists: artists that encouraged objective documentation, where the subject was the thing, rather than the artist. 

His first major book, Urformen der Kunst, was published in 1928, shortly before his death. A collection of 120 prints, the book was immediately regarded as a ground-breaking work that established Blossfeldt as a superlative modernist photographer, and a botanic luminary. Philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin was among the first to recognize Blossfeldt's achievements: "He has done his part in that great examination of the perceptive inventory, which will have an unfoerseeable effect on our conceptions of the world... Whether we speed up a plant's growth of show its form in a forty-fold enlargement—in both cases a geyser of new images erupts at points of our existence where we would least expect it."

Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.