Karl Blossfeldt – Whitechapel Gallery

13th May 2013

It’s an interesting fact that Blossfeldt didn’t publish the works exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery until four years before his death, and even then, although ‘swiftly regarded as a seminal book on photography’, I wonder if he actually produced ‘Urformen der Kunst’ (Art Forms in Nature) as a photography book?  He, along with his father before him, had an abiding interest in nature and plants and believed that ‘the plant must be valued as a totally artistic and architectural structure.’ and I think he produced it as a careful consideration of his life’s work for posterity which he’d used as a teaching aid to art students on form, shape and texture.  Yes, he was obviously an accomplished photographer, and an optical craftsman of real merit, having made his own cameras with fantastic macro capability, but being self-taught as a photographer I think he saw the medium as a means to an end for the purposes he required of it and not in and of itself an art medium with which he wanted to develop a personal artistic branch.

It’s clear to me from viewing the images that Blossfeldt was at times torn between making the images as a scientific study and making the images for the purpose of his lecturing.  There are quite a number of images that have very carefully arranged subject matter and he took great pains with a number of them to ensure they were perfectly focused, yet in many more there is also very clear evidence that detail didn’t matter as the images are unfocused showing just shape and form.  He also took the trouble to name the plants in the better images but not in the others; I wonder if he had two loves in his work, nature and art, and was torn between them , one for sheer pleasure and the other for pleasure and income?

‘Heraldic, Germanic, erotic, ahistorical (or maybe historic), microscopically aesthetic, geographically specific, alien and sculptural and clinical but not sensual and transparently not cynical, Steiner, Goethe and Sander (but not Weston) pre-Adams, post Victorian … what makes a Blossfeldt a Blossfeldt?’  These were all tags that were attempted to be put on these works by the delegates during the after visit discussion in the cafe.  I’m sure that all these things were seen by the viewers, and the discussion certainly made me aware of the things I’d not connoted to them, but I’m not sure that any of them were necessarily intended to be there by Blossfeldt himself, after all they were made as a teaching aid and some of the ‘tags’ weren’t coined at that time so It’s difficult to see that he would have attributed them to his work, these are our interpretations of what we see as photographic works, but what do we see if we view them as they were originally intended?

To me they are an inspiration of movement and flow, shape and pattern and it’s easy to see, with hindsight, how these forms influenced the modernists and surrealists alike and help influence modern art and photography.

I was very impressed with the images he’d taken care with and the displays they made in their groups were very eye-catching, particularly the ferns and Horsetails, but the images he’d made simply to provide a visual description to students who couldn’t possibly imagine them without a stimulus were consequently just as boring to someone looking for photographic artistry and pleasure.  His talent with equipment, material and studio lighting he had available at the time make him a virtuoso if not quite a genius but it would be difficult to know why anyone would want to emulate his work unless they were producing a scientific treatise as although they’re curiously beautiful in a lot of cases they’re not going to make a continuous artistic genre, in my opinion.

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3 Responses to Karl Blossfeldt – Whitechapel Gallery

  1. Catherine says:

    The images do look unusual, with a beauty all their own. for some reason I kept wanting to see them in desaturated colour – maybe I had in mind the old fashioned plant/flower illustrations. Presumably they fit still-life genre.

    • Eddy Lerp says:

      They possibly do fit the still life genre Catherine but to me they seem too scientific for that. I’d have thought to fit properly they’d need to have more of them in the frame in most cases and certainly they’d need to be more accurately focused in a great number of instances.

  2. Brian says:

    They are basically documents and as such would have been regarded as detail shots not worthy of an “art” label, and when you see what it took to construct the cameras that could capture such close up detail you might think that the whole enterprise was one of manual labour, but when you consider that the detail is not visible to the unaided human eye then there is a case for labelling them “pictorial” rather them “documentary”. Blossfeldt’s purpose was to use these examples to teach sculpture to his students and therefore they are certainly art(ifacts) if not “propoer” art.

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