From a few years ago, I can only vaguely remember the images of plants that Blossfeldt made. Probably not because I had seen his work, but only because it was referred to in another book on plant photography that I own. Even though the subjects of (macro) plant photography would not be my first choice, it would be a useful exersise to see what this man did – and if we can find out – how he did it.
Karl Blossfeldt was born on the 13th of June 1865 in Schiele, Harz, Germany as the eldest of two children. He inherited his father’s passion for music and, as a small boy, he used to play in fields and wood, collecting flowers and plants to create a little garden near their house. This contact with nature, viewing the changing of the seasons in this landscape untouched by industrialisation, we find a solid foundation to the works in his later life.
He started an apprenticeship in an artistic form of iron casting at the iron foundry in Mägdesprung in 1881, which he would continue for the next three years. In 1884 he went to study the arts in Berlin, at the Institute of Royal Arts and Museum (later named College of Fine Arts). During his time here, he would create his first strongly enlarged and stylised photographic image of a dragonfly under the direct influence of prof. Ernst Ewald, the director of the School. Blossfeldt recognised the potential of the images to lighten the work for those studying small plants and from 1890 to 1896 he participated in a project in Italy, run by Moritz Meurer, collecting plant material for drawing classes. During this period Blossfeldt started systematically documenting plant samples photographically. Some of his photographs appear in Meurer’s publications at the turn of the century.
In 1898 he married Maria Plank. The marriage ended with a divorce in 1910 after 12 years and he would later marry the opera singer Helene Wegener.
He started teaching at the Institute of Royal Arts and Crafts Museum in Berlin in 1898, and continued working there as a professor from 1921 until 1930. His first exhibition was held in 1926 at the Nierendorf Gallery in Berlin when his study materials were discovered as a form of art and the book ‘Urformen der Kunst‘ was published in 1928. It was highly appreciated by both critics and public. You can find a good collection of his work at the Special Exhibit: Karl Blossfeldt, Urformen der Kunst.
Blossfeldt died in hospital on December 9th, 1932. He had no children.
The plant photographs were produced by simple means. Legend has it that a relatively straight-forward homemade camera was used, one common in its time and not very large, with a format of 9 X 12 cm. The glass plates which served as negatives were coated with inexpensive but not completely neutral-coloured orthochromatic emulsion, and occasionally – after 1902, as they became more widely available – with panchromatic emulsions, making possible a neutral reproduction of the colour red in halftones. Since the first emulsion was thin and therefore enabled high contrast with extremely sharp edges, it served especially to stress the structural elements. It was thus used primarily for photographs with white or grey backgrounds. The rarer photos with panchromatic emulsions were used to illustrate entire clusters or beds of flowers with a wider variation of chromatic values or halftones.
The most significant advance in Blossfeldt’s photo technique was in the processing stages. Rather than making prints from developed negatives or using the gum process or carbon prints (both popular at the time), Blossfeldt made slides for projection. The most common slide format before World War I (8.5 x 10.5 cm) corresponded more or less to Blossfeldt’s format; he could then select the desired section of the photo by blocking out the rest with black strips. There are no documentary records of the projection of his slides as drawing copies. We know of two methods of projection employed around 1910 however, of which he surely also made use.