Books

The Early-20th-Century Photographer Who Magnified the Alien Beauty of Plants

Using a homemade camera, Karl Blossfeldt captured the sculptural details of plants, from the geometry of a seed pod to the alien curl of a fern.

Karl Blossfeldt, Polystichum munitum, western swordfern, young furled frond (courtesy D.A.P.)

Karl Blossfeldt originally made detailed photographs of plant specimens as teaching tools for his applied art students, building his own camera to magnify the sculptural qualities of seedpods, pumpkin tendrils, and horsetail shoots at up to 45 times their size. The 1928 publication of his book Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) suddenly brought the Berlin professor widespread artistic acclaim, with critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin describing the “astonishing plant photographs” as revealing “the forms of ancient columns in horse willow, a bishop’s crosier in the ostrich fern, totem poles in tenfold enlargements of chestnut and maple shoots, and gothic tracery in the fuller’s thistle.”

Cover of Karl Blossfeldt: Masterworks (courtesy D.A.P.)

Karl Blossfeldt: Masterworks, out now from D.A.P., features 70 photographs selected from the thousands he created in his lifetime. Edited by Ann and Jürgen Wilde, photography collectors and the founders of the Karl Blossfeldt Archive, the chosen “masterworks” in the book showcase his eye for overlooked details in nature, like the leaf nodes dancing on a Himalayan balsam plant or the sharp geometric angles of a sea holly leaf. They also demonstrate his ability to make the most everyday plant appear alien, as in a photograph of three chestnut twigs arranged like gnarled totems.

“Did he really see columns and totem poles?” asks ecologist Hansjörg Küster in a foreword, referencing Benjamin’s commentary. “Did he see dancing figures or faces? Did he see something animalistic in botanical guise? Whatever the case, the images still urge us to associate them with other things and to perceive juxtapositions between different elements of our environment.” Küster also contributes notes on each specimen for the book’s index, identifying the stages of botanical life that Blossfeldt chose to portray, whether an asparagus shoot that had just emerged from the soil or stems growing on a head of lettuce that was not harvested in its prime.

With its incredible shapes set against neutral backgrounds, Blossfeldt’s photography continues to influence contemporary art, such as Robert Voit’s 2016 The Alphabet of New Plants, which replicated the professor’s perspective with mass-produced plastic plants. We’re so familiar with macrophotography today that it may be hard to return to the early-20th-century context and imagine how these images would have startled viewers with their revelations of intricate beauty in even the smallest bud of a violet. Yet they remain compelling examples of looking closely at the world around us.

Pages from Karl Blossfeldt: Masterworks (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Pages from Karl Blossfeldt: Masterworks (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Karl Blossfeldt, Acanthus mollis, bear’s breeches, flowering stem with bracts, flowers removed (courtesy D.A.P.)
Karl Blossfeldt, Papaver orientale, oriental poppy, flower bud (courtesy D.A.P.)
Karl Blossfeldt, Eryngium bourgatii, Mediterranean sea holly, leaf (courtesy D.A.P.)
Karl Blossfeldt, Serratula nudicaulis, saw-wort, seed heads (courtesy D.A.P.)
Karl Blossfeldt, Cucurbita sp., pumpkin, tendrils (courtesy D.A.P.)
Karl Blossfeldt, Allium oreophilum, pink lily leek, flower head (umbel) (courtesy D.A.P.)
Karl Blossfeldt, Dipsacus laciniatus, cutleaf teasel, stem with leaves (courtesy D.A.P.)
Karl Blossfeldt, Adiantum pedatum, maidenhair fern, young frond (courtesy D.A.P.)
Karl Blossfeldt, Impatiens glandulifera, Himalayan balsam, leaf nodes (courtesy D.A.P.)
Karl Blossfeldt, Phalaris canariensis, canary grass, in fruit (courtesy D.A.P.)

Karl Blossfeldt: Masterworks, edited by Ann and Jürgen Wilde, is published by D.A.P.

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