Karl Blossfeldt (1865 – 1932) was
a German photographer, sculptor, teacher, and artist who worked in
Berlin, Germany, at the turn of the century. He worked with a camera
he designed himself. That camera allowed him to greatly magnify the
objects he was capturing, to up to 30 times their actual size. He
spent much of his time devoted to the study of nature. In his career
of more than 30 years, he photographed nothing but plants, or
rather, sections of plants. In many of his photographs, he would
zoom in so close to a plant that the plant no longer looked like a
plant. The images he created looked more like lovely, abstract
forms. His photos revealed the amazing detail found in nature.
When Karl Blossfeldt began his career, photography was still quite
new. Many people saw it as a scientific tool. They looked at it as
an infallible means of capturing the world. Many people did not look
at photography as an art form yet. Blossfeldt's work can be seen as
a transition between looking at photography as just science and
looking at photography as art.
Blossfeldt was born in Schielo, the Unterharz region of Germany. He
attended high school in the nearby village of Harzgerode and
graduated with a secondary school certificate. He started as a
sculpture and modelling apprentice at the iron foundry in
Mägdesprung by the Harz mountains. Between 1884 and 1890, he took
music and drawing classes at the Lehranstalt des Königlich
Preussischen Kunstgewerbemuseums (The Royal Institute of Arts and
Crafts), in Berlin thanks to a fellowship granted by the Prussian
Over the next decade, Blossfeldt traveled around Italy, Greece, and
North Africa, where he started collecting plant material for drawing
classes and systematically documented single plant samples with
photographs under the tutelage of Moritz Meurer, who published some
of the young photographer’s work. In 1898, Blossfeldt joined the
Kunstgewerbliche Lehranstalt, teaching modelling based on plant
samples and his own photographs as class material. He held this
position for 31 years.
His works focused on the beauty of nature. He chose to use the
organic forms of the earth to contrast against stark backgrounds so
that the shapes he created focused on the small detail of nature,
making it the main focus of the image and to show these natural
compositions on scales as small as ornamental ironwork and as large
as the shapes of entire buildings.
In 1912, he married Helene Wegener, an opera singer. She was his
second wife. Together they traveled around southern Europe and
northern Africa. In 1921, he was appointed Hochschule für bildende
Künste professor at the Institute in Berlin.
Blossfeldt's botanical photographs, which Meurer had used as
teaching material in his drawing manual, were first exhibited at
Berlin's Gallery Nierendorf in 1926 and were published in several
illustrated magazines and books on architecture and design theory.
The 1928 publication of Urformen der Kunst (Archetypes of Art), a
stunning collection of extreme closeup photos of plants, earned
Blossfeldt a place as a pioneer in the New Objectivity art movement.
The book received enthusiastic responses from both literary circles
and the general public.
His success was followed by another exhibition at the Bauhaus in
Dessau in 1929, and a series of botanical photographs were published
in Documents to illustrate Georges Bataille's article "The Language
of Flowers" (1929, issue 3). Blossfeldt retired from teaching to
emeritus status at the college in 1930.
His Second Series of Art Forms in Nature were published in
Wundergarten der Natur (Magical Garden of Nature), which was
published in the year he died, 1932. Blossfeldt's lifespan mirrors
almost exactly that of the objective photographer Wilson Bentley
(1865–1931), from the U.S. state of Vermont, whose work focused on
photographically recording snowflakes and ice crystals.