Karl Blössfeldt: Indisputably Modern  (Fall 2011)

The German photographer and teacher Karl Blossfeldt (1865 – 1932) is remembered in art history as a solitary figure who intuited the modernist aesthetic—his photographs of plants have all the hallmarks of the ‘new photography’ of the 1920’s and 1930’s via his choice of neutral backgrounds, use of magnification, perfectly straight visual representation of the forms, and absence of any manipulation or alteration of the negative or the print. When Blossfeldt’s photographs were first exhibited and published in the late 1920’s, what was praised most was his clean, “modernist” aesthetic and the “new way” in which the plant forms were rendered.  Enthusiastically embraced by the then avant-garde and promoters of the modernist aesthetic, as recorded in history by critical reviews and simplified biographies, the current written histories as a consequence neglect Blossfeldt’s development and maturation as a teacher and the context in which the photographs were made and what they were made for.

In a systematic review of Blossfeldt’s history, the author will demonstrate that the artist’s photographs of plant specimens, as published in his 1928 book Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature), aptly harbor the bi-polar definitions of what was and is ‘modern’, in that the project was initially conceived as a return to antiquity’s bow to nature as ideal model for design  and was later embraced by proponents of the “New Objectivity” aesthetic as well as satisfying László Moholy-Nagy’s call for “New Vision” in photography, in how the subjects were captured/ seen in a new way, bearing in mind that by the early 20th century artists had embraced the redefinition of “modern”, which was characterized as continual progression and a rejection of tradition.  This essay will endeavor to clarify that the artist’s artistic lineage inherently demonstrates that Karl Blossfeldt’s modernist aesthetic was not “new” but rather a product out of a revived tradition, part of a continuum in teaching methodology specific to drawing and the pedagogical function of the photographs.  (Read more)