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Karl Blossfeldt

Text from Rolf Sachse, Karl Blossfeldt

Karl Blossfeldt: Modeller, photographer, plant collector

"He photographed plants by the thousands - photographs which feature flowers, buds, branched stems, clusters or seed capsules shot directly from the side, seldom from an overhead view, and rarely from a diagonal perspective. He usually placed the subjects of his photographs against white or grey cardboard, sometimes against a black background. Hardly ever can details of the rooms be detected. The light for his shots was obtained from northern windows, making it diffuse, but it fell from the side, creating volume. The technique and processing conditions were very simple; only the medium size of the negative format was somewhat out of the ordinary. Nothing detracted from the subject. This man produced such pictures for over thirty years.

"This line of work was not his main profession, although his fame today rests on his photographs. Rather, plant photography was part of a teaching concept, of which he was only partly the author. He taught for over thirty years at the Kunstgewerbeschule (College of Arts and Crafts) in the Charlottenburg quarter of Berlin. Shortly before his death, he announced his intention to publish his teaching methods. Neither this plan nor that of completing an archive of plant photographs was ever realized. What has remained are bundles of photographs, which have made history on their own, and the memory of a teacher, who like so many in his field left no lasting impression outside of his personal sphere.

"The man's name was Karl Blossfeldt, and his life's achievement occupies a firm place in the history of 20th-century art, although the aims of his undertaking place him firmly within the 19th century. Blossfeldt shares this bridging of two centuries with other great collectors in the history of photography, such as the Parisian Eugene Atget, and it is to this bridging of two centuries that his influence may be attributed today...

"Blossfeldt photographed plants in front of a grey or white background. In doing so, he was drawing inspiration from the pharmaceutical plant catalogues and classification books of the late Middle Ages and the herbaria of the 17th and 18th centuries, in which comparison and classification of the plants shown had only been possible by employing a uniform background. He was thereby also going completely against the contemporary trend with its loathing of empty backgrounds: no room should be empty, no wall devoid of decoration, no newspaper, magazine or book page should be printed without filling every last inch with ornamentation and trimming. Yet publishing his photos as part of the arts and crafts movement of the time was a notion which did not occur to Blossfeldt. For him, they represented nothing more than teaching material.

"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. One method was to project the slides onto the wall and have the students draw from the enlarged projection. The other method, used in textile design, involved reflecting the projected photo with mirrors onto the drawing board, where the students simply traced over the contours. This last exercise reduced the focus to the formal framework alone, with little relation to the original plant. On the other hand, in terms of repeated patterns and mechanics, it offered more possibilities for the application of the drawing. For such a projection to serve the mechanical copying of formal properties, the slides had to fill one precondition: they had to show the object clearly and without extraneous details. This was exactly the quality of Blossfeldt's work, and in particular the quality of his collection of plant photographs."


 


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