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Karl Blossfeldt, the Tactile Qualities of Botanical Photography


This photographer discovered the elegance and the phantasmagorical forms of human constructions in the plant universe.

photograph of a newly formed leaf The photographs of Karl Blossfeldt are considered to be among the finest of the early 20th century, but it all began with an experiment in teaching. Blossfeldt was neither a photographer nor a botanist; he was a sculptor and an art teacher who took photographs of magnified nature to encourage his students to pay attention to the world. Thus, without realizing that he was giving life to a whole new category of elegance, he discovered that plants have tactile and majestic qualities that at first sight were not discernible to the human eye.

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.

He built a camera with a very long lens that could magnify objects by up to 40 times their size to capture the microcosmic aesthetics of his specimens. Sometimes, during final editing, he used pencil, graphite and watercolor to intensify the light and shadow. He knew that in addition to being teaching material, his photos were forming an aesthetic family and that they should resemble each other in texture and composition.

a fiddlehead plantAfter finding fame in 1928 with the first publication of his photos (Urformen Der Kunst), Blossfeldt immediately became a pioneer of a new objectivity. He, after all, had discovered that behind his clean demonstrations of the natural word there were phantasmagorical forms of a universe made by mankind: ancient columns in his horse’s tails, a bishop’s staff in his ferns and petrified ballerinas in his dried leaves. On occasions, to save printing space (which was very costly at the time), he would print several photographs on one sheet with an outstanding instrumental and harmonious analysis. He brought together the individual grace of each plant and formed a visual ecosystem, a score of golden notes.

His singular method of creating a botanical inventory, with that sepia tone and matt finish, brought a magnetic aura to his work; that singular aura of a collector’s objects. In fact, the philosopher Walter Benjamin declared that Karl Blossfeldt “has played his part in that great examination of the inventory of perception, which will have an unforeseeable effect on our conception of the world.”

By the end of his life, the German photographer had gathered more than 6,000 images of magnified botanical specimens, isolated and on a plain background. Blossfeldt never drowned his work in commentary, for him his plants were not a textual language but rather elements of design, well-balanced Arabesque patterns. By refusing to be considered an artist he became a kind of translator of the natural world. And he elevated nature to a status even higher than that of art in the most elegant way ever seen in botanical photography.

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