1865 – 1932
Originally developed from a practice at the Unterrichtsanstalt des Königlichen Kunstgewerbemuseums Berlin [Institute of the Berlin Royal Arts and Crafts Museum] at the end of the 19th century and designed specifically for use as teaching materials, Karl Blossfeldt's plant photographs rank today among the classic works of art and photography history.
Blossfeldt taught "Modelling from Live Plants" from 1899 to 1930, first at the Unterrichtsanstalt des Königlichen Kunstgewerbemuseums, later at the Vereinigte Staatsschulen für Freie und Angewandte Kunst [United State Schools for Fine and Applied Arts] that emerged from the Unterrichtsanstalt’s amalgamation with the Hochschule für Bildende Künste [University of the Visual Arts] –predecessors of the present-day Berlin University of the Arts. A major role in the introduction of that subject was played by Moritz Meurer, for whom Karl Blossfeldt worked as a scholarship-holder in Rome from 1892 to 1895. There, prepared plant specimens, sculptures, castings, drawings and photographs were made as models for classroom use. Blossfeldt took up and systematically developed Meurer's idea of using the basic natural forms inherent in the structure of a plant for the design of architectural, art or craft objects and ornaments.
A letter written to the director of the Arts and Crafts Museum in 1906 shows that Blossfeldt was already in possession of thousands of photographs, from which he intended gradually to make prints. The plan to enlarge the images came about for a number of reasons:
• The plants that Blossfeldt collected for his students underwent relatively rapid change, either because they grew or because they wilted and withered. Captured in a photograph, they became a lasting model.
• Photographic enlargements allowed even the tiniest natural forms to be made out.
• Photographic enlargements offered the opportunity to present "unadulterated nature" – in contrast to sketched enlargements, which Blossfeldt contended "always contain a subjective element".
• Blossfeldt wanted his material seen as a specimen collection that would also be available for future generations of students.
There is no detailed record showing the technical facilities at Karl Blossfeldt's disposal. The Karl Blossfeldt Archive/Ann and Jürgen Wilde and the Deutsche Fotothek in Dresden have preserved glass plates and transparencies of various formats (6/6.5 x 9 cm, 9 x 12 cm, 9 x 18 cm and 13 x 18 cm). Blossfeldt's camera – or cameras, because he may have had several – is known to have been an entirely or partly home-made affair. The work collages in the collection of the Karl Blossfeldt Archive/Ann and Jürgen Wilde give a good idea of his negatives because the images that appear in them are from contact prints made by Blossfeldt.
The fact that Karl Blossfeldt became a major celebrity was due to the fortunate circumstance that his photographs came to the attention of the Berlin gallerist Karl Nierendorf. He staged the first exhibition of Blossfeldt's work in a non-school context in 1926, presenting it alongside sculptures from Africa and New Guinea and work by the artist Richard Janthur. In 1928, in another Nierendorf initiative, Urformen der Kunst [Art Forms in Nature] was published with 120 plates of plants by Blossfeldt. The book was given such a rapturous reception that the following years saw more editions published and foreign-language editions launched in English, French and Swedish. These studies were very much in tune with the new maxim of 1920s art that called for things to be represented authentically, with no artistic frills, in a clear visual idiom designed to explore and reveal their nature. The fact that Blossfeldt succeeded in this is all the more astonishing since he started out working with no thoughts of pushing forward any boundaries in art or photography. He was primarily motivated by a didactic and pragmatic intention to produce highly accurate plant images which, as models for study, would reveal natural forms to the human eye and inspire students to turn them into art.
With his passionate concentration on a single subject, addressed in close-up in almost infinite variations and thus revealed for comparative examination, Blossfeldt became a highly respected figure, especially after the re-think on photography in the 1970s. As a result, he has had an indirect influence on contemporary art and knowledge of his work helps shape the way we view art today.
Karl Blossfeldt did not experience his success for long. He died in December 1932, the year in which his second book Wundergarten der Natur (Art Forms in Nature) was published.
The largest collections of his photographs are in the Karl Blossfeldt Archive/Ann and Jürgen Wilde, the Archive of the Berlin University of the Arts and the Deutsche Fotothek Dresden.