I was surprised to find myself looking at photos of plants in an art gallery yesterday morning. I am more of a people person really. But I do love the OCA study tours, especially when they are ten minutes away from home, so this was irresistible.
The Karl Blossfeldt exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is actually delightful. It features over 80 silver gelatin prints of plants, which Blossfeldt used in his role as a sculptor tutor in Berlin, until his death in 1932. The plants have been dramatically magnified with his home-made camera equipment and the result is surreal. One of the wall texts describes the work as having “an unsuspected horde of analogies” as the result of “bracing enlargement”. These are not just botanical specimens but portrayed as almost tactile, sculptural objects, which forces us to see the plants in completely new ways. This is definitely art and not science.
In the words of Walter Benjamin, from his Little History of Photography:
“Blossfeldt reveals the forms of ancient columns in horse willow, a bishop’s crosier in the ostrich fern, totem poles in tenfold enlargements of chestnut and maple shoots, and gothic tracery in the fuller’s thistle…”
“When photography takes itself out of context, severing the connections illustrated by Sander, Blossfeldt, or Germaine Krull, when it frees itself from physiognomic, political, and scientific interest, it becomes creative.”
The treatment is minimalist: neutral backgrounds to show the full, magnificent details of the structures with few shadows; diffuse lighting (possible from a window?) from the side to enhance the form; a mix of heavy contrast and low-key images, all printed at the same size.
The mystery is really what exactly were the photographer’s motivations?
There is a clear obsession here. Blossfeldt himself said: "My botanical documents should contribute to restoring the link with nature. They should reawaken a sense of nature, point to its teeming richness of form, and prompt the viewer to observe for himself the surrounding plant world."
We have a strong sense of the scientist in the way the plants are methodically documented. And we can see the influences of the photographer’s experience as a modeller in a metal foundry in his early years. Several of the images look like wrought iron or art nouveau jewellery. We also see evidence of heraldry, the German Cross and some examples of abstract patterning. Some of the seed heads could be templates for alien animations.
The images are displayed in thought-provoking groups, allowing the juxtapositions to create new meanings – three twig stems become a pattern of their own. Repetition draws the viewer in to consider the uniqueness of every strand and spike and saddle. The horsetail pictures are architectural and monolithic (Tower of Pisa-like) while the irises are soft and feminine. I could imagine these being sold to my wealthier contemporaries in a shop on Columbia Road – aesthetically gorgeous and unchallenging. Perfect for the stairwell wall.
The more I look at the images, the more pleasing they become – a really wonderful set and an inspiration to experiment more with macro and perhaps to detach/isolate objects from their contexts. In the final room there were a few larger prints (maybe a metre high compared with most of the images being about a third of that size) and I would love to see more of these images at that scale or bigger.
Blossfeldt’s work also looks fantastic viewed en masse:
Some discussion points from the tour:
- Comparisons with Weston’s black and white pepper images (more curvy and sensual) and Georgia O’Keefe’s work (“she wouldn’t have those spikes though!”), as well as Darwin’s bird studies
- Rob (Bloomfield) suggested some of the prints may have been bleached to bring the highlights out
- Observations that some images were very “Paris Metro”; also described as “verging on ugly” and “spare”
- Why the particular image which was used to promote the show was chosen – it looks much more dated than some of the others. It also has more contrast and a white background on the printed gallery pamphlet; we observed that the images reproduced in Amano’s book had been altered (sharpened and levels changed)
- Glorification of nature/idealism and if there was any religious aspect (eg like Goethe’s connections between observation of nature and the creator/God)?
- Tutor Robert (Enoch) asked us to consider how Blossfeldt achieved what he has and what makes a Blossfeldt so distinctive. We felt that his skills and experiences (the combination of him being a botanist, sculptor, metal-worker with some Germanic sensibilities and a cultural shift towards Modernism thrown in) created a unique approach at the point of intersection (the ultimate in micro-nicheing!)
- Robert talked about a “cool objectivity” and a “deflective motive” making these images so unique and powerful
- We considered why natural forms interest and inspire us – Robert mentioned Bruce Chatwin being told by his physician “you need to view some distant horizons” in order to correct his eyesight problems
- Appropriation and modernism having “personality attached”
- Was there a sub-conscious sexual element with the curves and textures, phalluses and hollows? Symbols of fertility and the emergence from dark to light
- We were encouraged to try making some of our own “back garden Blossfeldts” - Robert and Amano had already tried this and suggested it is a lot harder than it looks...