Lecture 3: Karl Blossfeldt New Objectivity or Metaphysical Purposiveness?

Information on dissertation:

  • Single case study of photographer can aid a full dissertation.
  • Can be done on just one photographer.
  • Biographies not what they want in a dissertation (unless needed).

In 1928 Blossfeldt published ‘Urformen der Kunst’ (Artforms in Nature)

  • The book becomes an international success very quickly with editions in Germany, England, France and Sweden.
  • The recognition leads Blossfeldt to publish another volume of plant photographs in 1932.

The association between Blossfeldt’s images and New Objectivity is largely due to Karl Nierendorf’s intervention in Blossfeldt’s career.

New Objectivity: relates to painting and photography. Looking at the world, not just inside the artist.

Nierendorf sees Blossfeldt’s images in a small exhibition probably in the corridors of the art school of the Kunstgewerbemuseum.

  • Clay modelling from plants, began his photography.
  • Photographs for students, teaching material.
Albert Renger-Patzsch, Die Welt ist schön (The World is Beautiful), 1928.
  • Modernist and Blossfeldt – very close assosciation.

August Sander, from People of the 20th Century, 1910–1950s.

Karl Blossfeldt, selected images, 1890s onwards.

  • Sanders archival way of working is similar to Blossfeldt’s.

Through Nierendorf, Blossfeldt’s work becomes associated with Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity)

  • Nierendorf shows Blossfeldt’s photographs in his gallery associated with Neue Sachlichkeit, and organises the publication Artforms in Nature.
  • Blossfeldt is included in a large exhibition of new photography and film, Film und Foto, in Stuttgart in 1929.
  • His work is exhibited alongside avant-gardists, such as El Lissitzky and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy.

Film und foto, Stuttgart 1929. (source of images, http://www.moma.org)

  • Blossfeldt’s photographs appeared in this exhibition.

Benjamin celebrates Blossfeldt in 1928 as one of the artists who are working at the limits of our perception and hence stretching our ‘image of the world’ in new ways.

Georges Bataille illustrates his essay ‘The Language of  Flowers’ (‘Le langage des fleurs’) with Blossfeldt’s images in his Surrealist publication Documents in 1929 (Documents, No.3).


Was Blossfeldt really a modernist?

  • His photographs were not aimed intentionally to create autonomous’ photographic art. Rather, they were intended as teaching materials for classes in sculpture.
  • This seems like a violation of the modernist principle already: photographs in the service of sculpture which would be based on photographs: interdisciplinarity.

Might have used a homemade camera.

Basis of sculpture, not that interested in photography – just means to an end.

(Working collage) test prints etc. on sheet of card.

Very different from modernist way of working (see the world in photographs).

Since the recording process [in photography, unlike in painting] is instantaneous, and the nature of the image such that it cannot survive corrective handwork, it is obvious that the finished print must be created in full before the film is exposed. Until the photographer has learned to visualize his final result in advance, and to predetermine the procedures necessary to carry out that visualization, his finished work (if it be photography at all) will present a series of lucky – or unlucky – mechanical accidents
(Edward Weston, ‘Seeing Photographically’, in Wells, L. ed. 2003, The Photography Reader, London: Routledge).

  • Blossfeldt, not pre-visualising his work, extensive test prints etc.

Blossfeldt obviously worked on his negatives and even on the objects he photographed.

This is contrary to the principles of Neue Sachlichkeit and modernist ‘straight photography’ from the United States.

Both German and American modernists insisted on knowing one’s technique so thoroughly that the finished print was already worked out before the photographer exposed his film.

  • What are these images? Nothing but a teacher of sculpture?
  • What’s interesting about plants, argue that plant is an organic structure as man made architecture (exotic architecture).
  • Man and nature intertwined, similarities with buildings show this.
  • Blossfelt worried less about modernist, more about relationship between man and nature?

Blossfeldt wrote a forward the year he died on his work, which hasn’t been translated from German, however Dr Teemu Hupli has made his own translation.

It begins with a quote:

Were you, ramblers, able to grasp ideals

Oh! You would venerate nature as ‘tis proper,

Were you, philistines, able to see nature as a whole,

You would surely be led to higher ideas

(Goethe, Schiller, Musen-Almanach für das Jahr 1797)

  • Natures eternal spring of youth, look at nature to become good artists.
  • Reawaken people’s eyes with natural beauty around us.

“A plant is to be understood* as a thoroughly artistic-architectonic structure. Besides the decorative and rhythmic creative drive, which prevails everywhere in nature, a plant builds only necessary and purposeful forms. In its continuous struggle for existence [Daseinskampf], it is forced to create robust, essential and useful organs. It builds according to the same laws of statics [statischen Gesetzen] that every construction engineer, too, must observe. But the plant never lapses into mere dry display of functionalism [Sachlichkeitsdarstellungen]; it moulds and builds by logic and purposiveness [Zweckmäßigkeit], and constrains everything with elemental force to highest artistic form.”

*Bewerten: literally, judged, assessed.

  • ‘Struggle for existence’ relates to Darwin.
  • ‘Law of statics’ relates to Newton and Descartes (physics).
  • ‘Purposiveness [Zweckmäßigkeit]’ relates to 80th and 90th century natural philosophy.
  • Interested in theories of nature.

Insofar as nature’s products are aggregates, nature proceeds mechanically, as mere nature; but insofar as its products are systems—e.g., crystal formations, various shapes of flowers, or the inner structure of plants and animals—nature proceeds technically [i.e., purposively], that is, it proceeds also as art.

(Kant, CJ, First Introduction, section VI)

SO: Flowers (and crystals) + techné/art (which is also close to purposiveness) = Kantian thinking.

And it seems that Blossfeldt’s work contains the same combination of interests/ideas.

Purposiveness: We need a concept (starting point) for thinking to form logical concepts.

  • Concepts of thinking of objects, otherwise we would not understand them.
  • Think what we see.

What are concepts? Collections of characteristics of objects. For example, trees are all somehow different, but all have similarities. We formulate a concept based on these differences and similarities. Same concept each time. We need an assumption that nature has order – purposiveness of nature.

Insofar as nature’s products are aggregates, nature proceeds mechanically, as mere nature; but insofar as its products are systems—e.g., crystal formations, various shapes of flowers, or the inner structure of plants and animals—nature proceeds technically, that is, it proceeds also as art.

(Kant, CJ, First Introduction, section VI)

  • Two kinds of objects in nature, mechanical and systems.
  • Mechanical: sand, snow, comets. Forms in the sand produced by water and wind, snow placing itself. Comets are matter, which could if went off course crash into Earth.
  • System: predictability of nature. Blossfeldt shows natures ability.
Wilson Bentley, Snow Crystals, 1885-.
  • First person to photograph single snow flake.
Alfred Ehrhardt, Gips, auf einem Baumstamm ringsherum aufgewachsen – Thüringen, 1938/39.
  • Forms made by sea and wind, interested in how nature systematizes itself.
  • Complex, intricate systems.
Claudia Fährenkemper, Habitus 1, Crystal, 2002.
  • Student of Bernd and Hilla Becher.
  • Photographs of crystals.


  • Micro photographs of crystal formulation.
  • Silicate, most harmful dust after 9/11.
  • Fährenkemper and Richter’s work not joined completely but relates to one another.

Essential Reading:

Meyer-Stump, Ulrike (2001), ‘Karl Blossfeldt’s Working Collages—A Photographic Sketchbook’, in Wilde A. and J. (eds), Karl Blossfeldt: Working Collages, Cambridge MA and London: MIT


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