Modernism/modernity 10.2 (2003) 398-400
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Karl Blossfeldt Working Collages. Ann and Juergen Wilde, eds. Christopher Jenkin Jones, transl. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001. Pp. 144. $55.00 (cloth).
The unexpected trajectory of Karl Blossfeldt's photographic career, and the lively critical interest his works have engendered since the twenties, make the publication of his "archival sketchbook" a welcome event. Karl Blossfeldt Working Collages reproduces, for the first time, the photographer's full collection of sixty-one grey cardboard sheets onto which he glued contact prints of morphologically similar plant motifs. These sheets, organized loosely into grids comprising approximately twenty prints each, allow one to examine the photographer's creative process and to define its distinctive features. As Ulrike Meyer Stump, the author of the book's introduction states, these "working collages" (to use her term) were never intended as independent works. Collected over a period of decades and used as source material for Blossfeldt's book of 1928 Urformen der Kunst (published in English as Art Forms in Nature, 1929), they allow us to witness the transformation of selected contact prints into their final published form.
Apprenticed to decorative artist Moritz Meurer in Rome from 1892 to 1897, Blossfeldt initially created plaster models and photographs of plants as teaching materials for courses intended to rejuvenate German applied arts. Inspired by Jugendstil ideals, Meurer instructed his students to base their decorative designs on the essential urforms of nature, which Blossfeldt's models and photographs would help them to discern. Subsequently, Blossfeldt taught at the school of the Museum of Decorative Art in Berlin, where he continued to employ Meurer's methods until his retirement in 1930. Inevitably, the relevance of Blossfeldt's courses declined in the teens, his colleagues regarding him as the "amiable exemplar of an extinct species" (8). Despite falling enrollments and an attempt to have him transferred in 1912, Blossfeldt retained his post, continuing to make photographs of plants and of his students's work.
In 1926 Blossfeldt's photographs were discovered by the Berlin dealer Karl Nierendorf, who probably saw them in a student exhibition. Nierendorf, an enthusiastic supporter of New Objectivity, [End Page 398] displayed Blossfeldt's photographs alongside African sculpture in his gallery in the spring of 1926, and he was also instrumental in the publication of Blossfeldt's book, Urformen der Kunst. The following year, Moholy-Nagy included Blossfeldt's photographs in the famous Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart, hanging them next to the works of a younger generation of avant-garde photographers. As Meyer Stump observes, such inclusions effectively presented Blossfeldt, who was over sixty by 1929, as exemplary of a new, anti-pictorialist approach to the medium. Blossfeldt's rigorous treatment of his plant motifs, which are generally centered and isolated against a neutral ground, seemed to share the ideals of contemporary straight photography. The truth value of these photographs lay in their precise focus, and in the revelation of natural forms through magnification. Nierendorf's introduction to Urformen der Kunst argues in lofty terms for the potential of photography to demonstrate the deep relations of Art and Nature, which in turn was proof of "the unity of the Creative Will." 1 Photography, an example of modern technics, could bring us closer to nature by allowing us to glimpse worlds previously inaccessible to vision. For Nierendorf, by virtue of their technics, Blossfeldt's photographs were inherently modern. He asserted that "Professor Blossfeldt ... in hundreds of photographic pictures of plants, which have not been retouched or artificially manipulated, but solely enlarged in different degrees, has demonstrated the close connection between the form produced by man and that developed by Nature." 2 Subsequent critics and art historians have continued to associate Blossfeldt with the tradition of straight photography, comparing his works not only to New Objectivity, but to the work of Hilla and Bernd Becher, and to conceptual artists Ed Ruscha and Douglas Huebler.
Given this reception, it is surprising to learn from the working collages that Blossfeldt's plant photographs were highly manipulated. Meyer Stump compares the images collected in the collages to those in...