ANNA SKRABACZ | DATE 3/24/2017
The flora in Karl Blossfeldt: Masterworks do not scream "botanical photography." Instead the plants appear to be composed in another medium entirely—maybe iron sculpture or illustration. This visual play may be attributed to the fact that Blossfeldt (1865–1932)—who is now best remembered as a photographer—was actually, primarily, a sculptor. His photographs of plants were originally made as teaching tools, visual references for his students at a Berlin art school in the early 1900s. As a self-taught photographer, Blossfeldt brought an air of innocence and experimentation to the photographs. With a sculptor's eye for gesture and an inherent fascination with patterns in nature, he created a highly original way of photographing plants.
The photos are intensely direct, made against neutral backgdrops with a homemade camera that could magnify its subjects more than 30 times their actual size. Looking at the images, one has the eerie sensation that the forms are simultaneously known and yet completely unrecognizable. Flipping through the book I couldn't name a single plant species, though I recognized familiar elements: the thorns, the veins of leaves, the stems and blossoms. Published by D.A.P., the deluxe, oversized volume has a beautifully simple design that complements the meditative quality of the images, with large clean pages and just one image per spread. Less is clearly more. Fittingly, editors Ann and Jürgen Wild selected the best 70 photographs out of 6,000 in the Blossfeldt archive.
Indeed, the photographs are as dynamic and riveting as they were in 1928, when they were first collected in the now-seminal photography book, Art Forms in Nature. At the time, Blossfeldt became an overnight sensation, not just among photographers, but with leading artists, writers and philosophers like Georges Bataille and Walter Benjamin, who praised his austere objectivity and new take on perception. When I first encountered the work, I admit I wondered what had made these images so shocking in the early twentieth century, while to me they read as more pleasantly fascinating. But I soon realized that my perspective had been jaded by a lifelong familiarity with zoom cameras and microscopes, not to mention iPhones, Photoshop, Instagram and all the other photo-enhancing social media apps. Once I changed that lens, I was amazed by what Blossfeldt had created, purely out of curiosity.
So to fully appreciate this book I recommend a two-fold approach. First, just look at the images and marvel at the fact that these are plants. Gawk at their simplicity of form. Then look again, with the understanding that each photograph is a playful innovation, and an experiment.
Hbk, 9.5 x 14.5 in. / 160 pgs / 70 duotone.
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