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The Architectural Beauty Of Early 20th-Century Botanical Photographs

At the turn of the 20th century, the photographs Karl Blossfeldt took to use as teaching tools highlighted the ways nature reflects art and architecture.

The term “biomimetics,” used to describe architecture that mimics natural forms and processes, was coined by Otto Schmitt in the mid-20th century, but the concept has been around for longer. Biological drawings like those, most famously, of the evolutionary theorist Ernst Haeckel, have been used as inspiration for architecture since the turn of the century.

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[Photo: Karl Blossfeldt]
Then there are the sculptural biological photographs of Karl Blossfeldt, which could similarly be seen as architectural inspiration. Rendered with an impressive level of detail, Blossfeldt’s works were originally teaching tools for artists before they became considered as works of fine art themselves. They urged the viewer, or the pupil, to associate biological forms with other parts of her environment. And as the new book, Karl Blossfeldt: Masterworks, suggests, the inspiration flowed both ways: Blossfeldt often found art and architectural forms reflected in nature.

Born in 1865 in the small town of Schielo, Germany, Blossfeldt became interested in photography at a young age during a time when it was unusual to even own a camera, much less practice photography. He refined his technique at Art School of the Royal Museum of Arts and Crafts in Berlin, where he studied under Moritz Meurer, a decorative artist who taught classes on ornament and design. Meurer’s major influences were two painters named Ludwig Richter and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, both of whom incorporated ornament and architecture into their paintings, and whose practices inspired Meurer’s approach to teaching. To encourage his students to incorporate ornamental objects into their own artwork, Meurer would cast unique plants and flowers in bronze to use as props in class. To help him find and photograph the flora, Blossfeldt came on as his assistant.

Blossfeldt photographed the plants before they were cast, eliminating any distracting background and focusing narrowly on the plants and their sculptural details. Since he was preparing the plants to be used as bronze architectural ornaments, he was careful that his photographs highlighted the elements that would be most useful. In the book’s forward, German biologist Hansjörg Küster writes, “Blossfeldt arranged the plants in an ideal way; he laid them on a sheet of glass that was placed at a distance from the surface below. The objects did not cast a shadow, but they had to be illuminated from various angles to ensure that all their parts and their three-dimensional structure would remain visible.”

[Photo: Karl Blossfeldt]
As a result, Blossfeldt’s photographs seem to give biological forms an architectural, or sculptural quality. They showcase the artistic and architectural qualities of plants that came out of biological necessity. They also prompted viewers to make associations between the natural world and the built environment. As the German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his book a Little History of Photography, “Blossfeldt with his astonishing plant photographs 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.”

In the years between 1900, when Blossfeldt was assisting Meurer, and the 1920s, when Benjamin was writing his book, Blossfeldt’s work had evolved from a mere teaching tool into widely respected fine art photographs. Benjamin compared Blossfeldt to Maholy-Nagy and the pioneers of the New Objectivity movement, and the Surrealists embraced his work. Yet, even today, the photographs still have an educational use in encouraging viewers to think about the interconnectedness of things both natural and manmade. Just as architects and designers find biological forms and processes useful for their designs, Blossfeldt found art and design reflected in biology.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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