As someone who gets obsessive about shooting plants, all the various bits, and finds them endlessly fascinating, Karl Blossfeldt has long been a revered icon. There’s a new book of his photos out, and they remain some of the most beautiful botanical photos ever taken. That beauty is magnified by the fact that Blossfeldt was using a homemade camera.
Karl Blossfeldt originally made detailed photographs of plant specimens as teaching tools for his applied art students, building his own camera to magnify the sculptural qualities of seedpods, pumpkin tendrils, and horsetail shoots at up to 45 times their size. The 1928 publication of his book Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) suddenly brought the Berlin professor widespread artistic acclaim, with critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin describing the “astonishing plant photographs” as revealing “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.”
We’re so familiar with macrophotography today that it may be hard to return to the early-20th-century context and imagine how these images would have startled viewers with their revelations of intricate beauty in even the smallest bud of a violet. Yet they remain compelling examples of looking closely at the world around us.
I love macro photography, and indulge in it often enough, but for me, none of it takes away from Blossfeldt’s work. There’s a joy and purity to his photos which are simply unparalleled.