Karl Blossfeldt And His Stunning Macro Photography


“Nature educates us into beauty and inwardness, and is a source of the most noble pleasure.”

Karl Blossfeldt

There is something about nature that seduces anyone holding a camera. Ultimately the natural world encourages us to see the flora we are surrounded by in unique and wonderful ways. I wouldn't dare to speak for every single photographer out there, of course, but I'm sure that everyone has, at one time or another, experienced that pinch of curiosity towards capturing photographs of plants in all their glory.

After wandering the corridors of our forums, I've stumbled across countless photographers that express that vivid desire to photograph plants in interesting ways. And so, I knew that I'd like to write about Karl Blossfeldt someday. He was an Arts Professor and a self-taught photographer, whose work can teach us a lot about macro photography even today.

The Curious Case of Karl Blossfeldt

Karl Blossfeldt was born in 1865, and in 1881 he started developing an enormous body of work which remains innovative to this day. The surrealist movement praised his work, and he is generally associated with the New Objectivity art movement in Germany. His work was so influential that it inspired Bernd and Hilla Becher to develop the concept and vision for the Düsseldorf School of Photography.

The curious thing is that he wasn't a photographer, per se. Blossfeldt used photography as a tool for his other work. He used his stunning macros for teaching visual references to his students, and he photographed plants and flowers, so they were easier to draw. Blossfeldt used these drawings as inputs and material to reinvigorate the study of design.

Thanks to the power of photography, he was able to preserve plants and flowers for educational purposes, and radically explore nature and form. Photography wasn't his passion. For Blossfeldt, this was just a tool that enabled him to see the shapes and forms of the natural world and apply them to design concepts.

And that's something to learn here. We don't need to respond to the urge of being a professional photographer. We can use photography as a tool for understanding the world in a deeper aesthetic way. We all have deeper passions in life beyond photography, so this should ring a bell to all of you!

The Creative Process Behind His Photographs

Photo By Karl Blossfeldt

Blossfeldt usually looked for plants outdoors in fields and parks. But he also had access to the botanic garden in Berlin, so he was used to handling common and unusual specimens alike. Amazingly, he was able to show the architecture behind even the most simple pieces of weed or straw.

Photo By Karl Blossfeldt

Beyond the mere act of recording plants with his camera, he was thorough in his processing of the specimens. He dried the plants and catalogued them under a standardized taxonomy. The magnificent thing about Blossfeldt's vision is that he was convinced that the most beautiful specimens were the ones that were the most unfairly treated by society or by connoisseurs. He basically made what Richard Avedon did with “In the American West“, but with plants – highlighting the beauty in the floral underdog!

Learning to See Again

Photo By Karl Blossfeldt

Perhaps 6,000 images doesn't sound like a lot in the digital age. But back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this was an enormous number of photographs. And remember these were for the sole purpose of being visual assets for teaching about the organic structure in plants for design inspiration.

Photo By Karl Blossfeldt

At first, he was assigned to find an innovative form for teaching his students about the morphology of plants. Conventional preserving methods weren't doing the job, so he turned to photography. He never deviated from his main goal, and it is curious to see how something that was intended to be an instrument, became so highly praised by the art world. He was in love with the hidden tiny-verse of the most common things surrounding him. If this isn't a lesson for all photographers, then please tell me what is?

The Main Problem with the Current State of Macro Photography

Photo By Karl Blossfeldt

There are very few macro photographers that follow such a precise approach towards their subjects. The vast majority of macro photographs that we see today lack visual consistency and comprise extreme bokeh and close-up shots of insects visiting our gardens.

While beauty for beauty's sake is great, the next step here is to achieve a style that pushes us forward. Something more methodical and systematic is required. There must be a purpose to respond to, and after a time, our photographs will achieve visual consistency and meaning.

A Brief Instruction about Reading Karl Blossfeldt's Photos

Photo By Karl Blossfeldt

Nowadays, we are not easily impressed by photographs due to visual oversaturation. However, the effort to read and understand great photography is worthy. To be delighted and moved by these photographs, we need to slow our visual consumption habits down. Here you can see some of Karl Blossfeldt's photographs. Take the time to enjoy his wonderful and influential work. And, in turn, be influenced by his methodical approach and the beauty he found in the detail of the every day. 

Photo By Karl Blossfeldt

If someone who didn't consider themselves a photographer, can teach us so much about photography, can you imagine how much we still have left to learn?

Further Reading:

Further Learning:

One of the most beautiful things you can shoot in macro is flowers. If you want to take your macro flower photography to the next level please take a look at photographer Leanne Cleavely's phenomenal guide Photographing Fabulous Flowers.

This guide takes you through gear, camera settings, natural and artificial light, composition and post-processing – everything you need to take amazing photographs of flowers.


About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

Nice to see this article on Blossfeldt. He is one of the biggest influences on my own botanical work. I have a slightly different interpretation on your last statement, though: he didn’t teach me about photography per se, he taught me about seeing the value and beauty and amazing mathematical design in even the smallest, most innocuous specimens.

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