"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."
- Karl Blossfeldt
Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932) was a German photographer, sculptor and teacher. He was fascinated by the patterns found in nature, and saw similarities between forms in nature, art and architecture. He began photographing flowers, stems and seedpods both as models for his sculpture and as a means of teaching and inspiring art students. The images were published as a book in 1929, when Blossfeldt was 63. He became famous almost overnight, and Urformen der Kunst (Archetypal Forms of Art) became one of the most important photographic books of the 20th Century.
I first became familiar with Blossfeldt’s work many years ago, though I had never seen the book or a large body of his images. Recently, I ordered the book (or rather, an updated paperback version in English). To see the collection is quite impressive. The plants are simply, even starkly photographed. What is so striking about these images are the sculptural and architectural qualities of the plants—his choice of plant specimens and the way he chose to present or arrange them. They look like skyscrapers, newel posts, fleur-de-lis carvings and more. They are familiar, and yet not familiar. He invites you to look at plants in ways you’ve never looked at them before.
That is one of the beauties of photography. It allows you to see the world through another’s eyes. To see things in ways you may have never seen them before. Even though I’ve spent much of my life photographing plants, I was inspired to go outside and really look again—particularly at the stems and branches on all the plants in the garden. Not only did I find some cool stems, but I also saw lots of bugs, ants, katydids, a praying mantis and a moth spinning a cocoon inside a curled leaf.
Like Blossfeldt, I appreciate the architectural structure of plants. It’s why I spent so much time in the Ancient Plants Garden at the San Francisco Botanical Garden in May. It was filled with some of my favorite plants—unusual plants like the Gunnera tinctoria, with its enormous, spiked leaves that are often referred to as dinosaur food; towering tree ferns that formed umbrellas overhead; a unique collection of horsetails (Equisetum spp.) varying in height from a few inches to more than 5 feet. Blossfeldt would have a hay day in this garden.
The other thing I like about Blossfeldt is his desire to help others reconnect with nature by viewing his photographs. Most people today spend too little time connecting with nature. This is particularly true in densely populated urban environments. While photographs and paintings of nature obviously aren’t the same as nature, research has shown that they share many of the same benefits. This is especially helpful in environments such as hospitals and long-term care facilities. Exposure to nature helps reduce stress and promote healing. And that’s a good thing.