We have tried, in many ways, to arrest that moment of growth, the steady biological advance of life, with the purpose of pinning it down and studying it. There may have been scientific advances in this field but when it comes to the heart of the matter, it is photography, in its attempted freezing of time, which brings us closest. The black-and-white plant studies of an unusual German photographer who made a name for himself more than a century ago offer exquisite, surreal flashes of the natural world, arrested mid-bloom. Magnified by eight times or more, they breathe close to your eye; you can almost hear them growing. Karl Blossfeldt certainly enjoyed watching them do so.
Blossfeldt (1865–1932) was a self- taught photographer, sculptor and artist who was also a professor at the Royal School of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin. Urformen der Kunst (literally ‘art forms in nature’ or ‘archetypal forms in nature’), his legendary book of photographs, was published in 1928 after an exhibition of his work at Berlin’s Galerie Nierendorf, becoming an international bestseller and earning him great acclaim. German cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin proclaimed that the artist ‘played his part in that great examination of the inventory of perception, which will have an unforeseeable effect on our conception of the world’, and placed his achievements at the level of great photographers like August Sander.
The group of seven gelatin silver prints in the Thomas Walther Collection at The Museum of Modern Art is among several timeless displays of Blossfeldt’s work, and the largest collection of his prints outside Germany. Now, for the first time in South Asia, we can view 41 of these prints at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, brought over by Tasveer Arts, which is dedicated solely to photography.
Blossfeldt created a series of cameras with interchangeable lenses that allowed for greater magnification, examining his botanical specimens— their buds, tendrils, seeds, leaves—to discover their spectacular innate sense of design. This was unprecedented at this time; he blew up tiny whorls of energy into large, quietly formidable subjects. So the American Maiden-hair Fern, that beautifully named example of flora (Adiantum pedatum), has its ‘young rolled-up fronds’ enlarged eight times, to reveal divine little coils springing off stalks; straight out of a Fellini film backdrop. The Winter Horsetail (Equisetum hyemale), enlarged 12 times, gives us two little Qutb Minars; just as Sultan Aibak may have conceived his, looking at a similar flower one day. The Golden- flowered Columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha), enlarged six times into three tentative trumpets, joined at their crown by a spray of pistils, is a classic still life in nature. Yet, it too feels alive.
‘What today has come to be regarded as among the finest bodies of work in early-twentieth-century photography began as a teaching experiment,’ reminds Hanako Murata, Assistant Conservator of Photographs at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), quoting from letters and contemporaries to explain the making of this modern photography legend. ‘An excellent sculptor, he first created a large, finely modeled dragonfly’s wing, but this was dismissed as trivial by the school’s director. Blossfeldt came up with an idea of making greatly enlarged photographs of the insect instead. “This enlargement then proved to be most useful to me in my studies, and thus I hit upon the use of enlarged photographs of small plant forms to assist as yet unskilled students in their work,” Blossfeldt recalled in 1929. “[I]t is due to this incident and this photograph that I am now publishing my enlarged plant photographs thirty years later.”’ (‘Material Forms in Nature: The Photographs of Karl Blossfeldt’, MoMA, one of the finest studies of Blossfeldt’s work). These plant photographs began as exercises in nature; to teach students of the inspiration in natural forms. The young teacher was trying to preserve his lessons, in the way that living specimens might not be able to be preserved, and in doing so found his calling as an artist.
“A 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,” Blossfeldt is often quoted as having said, and as his work continues to be displayed around the world for new audiences, his words are seized upon by everyone from photo- graphers to horticultural designers.
Blossfeldt was a pioneer, ahead of his time. With the modern advances in science, one wonders what he might have achieved today—though the mystery might not have been as beguiling today, of course. Under the microscope, which also reveals great beauty, might these forms have lost their appeal; gone one dimension too far? Perhaps the man was of his time, in that sense, the first to chip at that particular point of the frozen sea.
Born in 1865, Blossfeldt grew up in the Harz Mountains in central Germany. Apprenticing in sculpture and iron casting at the Art Ironworks and Foundry in Magdesprung, he won a scholarship to the Institute of Royal Arts Museum in Berlin. Blossfeldt was identified with the pioneers of the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), a movement in Weimar Germany which looked towards what Germans saw as an essentially American approach to life, focused on the objective and functional. He is described by many as having worked at the junction of Art Nouveau and modernism, and German designers were also guided by his work; the modernist patterns they found resonated so clearly with what they were working with.
Blossfeldt remained at the institute till 1930, and established an archive for his photographs. When publisher Ernst Wasmuth collaborated with him to produce the seminal Urformen Der Kunst, widely regarded as one of the major photographic books of the 20th century, it gave us another lasting archive, appearing in numerous editions and in several languages. Wundergarten der Natur (magic garden of nature) was published in 1932 and the post-humous Wunder in der Natur (magic in nature) came a decade later, together rounding up three valuable registers of his work.
But the spectacle of the exhibition of these 12-by-9 inch prints is an event in itself. Arranged in clusters of leaves, flowers and stems, every sub-group is an argument in time and space; each repetition of a line is a means of accessing infinity. Placed against stark white backgrounds, outside their natural environment, the works are life itself, and yet, not like life. For, there is something about the spirals and symmetries afforded by these studies that surprises our knowledge of the natural world, even if our educations teach us that nature affords such architectural unity of form. Blossfeldt may have wanted to show us that our endeavours begin in nature, where we find our model, but his works also suggest that the source of this inspiration lies far outside the realm of what is accessible, whether or not one believes in divinity.
(Karl Blossfeldt: Art Forms in Nature is showing at Vadehra Art Gallery, Defence Colony, New Delhi, till 16 May)