Writing on photography

Review: Karl Blossfelt at Whitechapel Gallery

It’s not often that I come across pictures of something as ordinary as common garden plants that stop me dead in my tracks, but Karl Blossfelt’s beautiful and intricate photographs currently on show at the Whitechapel Gallery did exactly that. Made between the end of the nineteenth century and Blossfelt’s death in 1932, these unique images are the product of his obsessive belief that all human architecture finds its fundamental inspiration in the natural world.

The photographs show delicate, complex, and at times abstract forms, ordered in small sets of related images, ranging from three to eight photographs. These sets bear more than a passing resemblance to the industrial typologies later used by the Bechers and their innumerable imitators, as do the experimental ‘working collages’ which are also on display and were used by Blossfelt used to compare the similarities between plants. Each of Blossfelt’s image sets explores the shared structural characteristics between plants of different species; the delicate coiled tendrils of pumpkin plants and deer ferns, or the unfurling buds of a scorpion weed and heliotrope.

In searching for evidence of the connection between human design and nature, Blossfelt produced a series of photographs that resemble the decontextualized details of strange buildings. One series of prints of rough horsetail resembles the domes of a byzantine church, others prophetically echo the increasingly organic superstructures of modern skyscrapers. Pages from Grun Arkitecture by Robert Bru are also on display in which this point is made rather more bluntly, juxtaposing Blossfelt’s photographs with architectural features and ethnographic objects including a totem pole.

Artistically Blossfelt’s approach to form and scale were unprecedented. He worked with home-made cameras to produce photographs of incredibly fine detail. Rendered in a soft black and white these images often more closely resembles charcoal drawings than photography. While a relative unknown in his lifetime, only ‘discovered’ a few years before his death, Blossfelt’s images have had a huge subsequent impact, and proving particularly influential on the Surrealist and New Objectivity movements, an influence which Gert Mattenklott argues stems from their ‘mutual desire to seek the modern in its pre-history’.

In the context of early twentieth century Germany it seems rare to find people making interesting work about anything so seemingly apolitical. But one could of course read all sorts of subtexts into these the photographs, what they say variously about Blossfelt, early twentieth century Germany, or the ‘Germanic mind’ in general. It is also inevitably tempting to wonder what Blossfelt’s future might have held had he not died when he did, a year before the ascendancy of the far right, considering the backlash against photographic work as seemingly inoffensive as August Sander’s.

But perhaps sometimes it is better to resist the desire to view work like this through the telescope of history and instead just take it as you find it; as a series of beautiful photographs, the products of a strange and unique mind. Karl Blossfelt is on at the Whitechapel Gallery until tomorrow, June 14th.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography