New Images for an Old Ceremony

Bernd Stiegler

“It is much better, when many images appear strange to the viewer for a time ... ” 
—Ernst Fuhrmann, “Überblick”(1) 

It is among the peculiar paradoxes of photographic history that the aesthetic of external 
appearances, for which the photography of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) became 
known, started out with barbs—more precisely with cactus barbs. Even if this aesthetic was 
often exclaimed as sleek, cool, or even as a transfiguration of the world of things and goods, at 
the beginning, it seemed to be much more thorny, resistant, abrasive, natural, and yet formally 
perfect—and precisely that was its aesthetic fascination. 

Plants have been among the preferred objects of photography from the very start, appearing as 
subjects since the earliest times, as in the photographs in William Henry Fox Talbot’s The 
Pencil of Nature or the comprehensive photographic archival works of Anna Atkins in the 
eighteen-forties, but since then are mainly being used as objects of still life photography. This 
doesn’t change until about the turn of the century, when photographic floral patterns come into 
wide use in fine arts and architecture (think of the floral ornaments of the Jugendstil and Art 
Nouveau). Karl Blossfeldt, who, ultimately, also stems from this tradition, presented a classic 
work of Neue Sachlichkeit photography in 1928 with his book, Urformen der Kunst. Even when 
Blossfeldt still represents the crossover point of very different lines of tradition that range from 
the monism of a Haeckel and the biosophy of a Fuhrmann, to the peculiar biological theory of a 
K. H. Francé, and classical photographic documentation for artistic use and art education, his 
photographs of plants set the course for a new way of observing a classical object. And they 
were reviewed as such: Walter Benjamin, for instance, devoted an important review to Blossfeldt 
as a turning point in photography in his work Kleine Geschichte der Photographie. Georges 
Bataille published an essay, “Le langage des fleurs,” in his magazine Documents with 
Blossfeldt’s photographs. Surrealists reviewed them with enthusiasm and even popular 
magazines, such as Uhu, referred to the images. There in the article, “Grüne Architektur,” a 
photograph of a horsetail was compared with architectural photographs. This was also shown in 
a similar fashion in a variety of forms in historical and theoretical architectural works. Many 
further examples could be mentioned. Plant photography did move into the focus of attention for 
a short period of time and acted as a programmatic determining factor between art, technology, 
and form. Form follows function: this defined position of modernity is already found 
implemented by plants in an exemplary manner. 

Images of plants held a special meaning and an unusual objective; it was about nothing less than 
the basic forms of nature and of culture. As Karl Nierendorf wrote in the foreword of 
Blossfeldt’s Urformen, it is about “grasping the deeper meaning of our times which in all areas 
of life, art and technology strives towards recognition and realization of a new unity.(2) Plants 
become the archetype and the photography that documents it, a universal medium. 

While cacti play a comparatively marginal role in Blossfeldt’s Neue Sachlichkeit photographic 
Florilegium, they move into the spotlight of Albert Renger-Patzsch’s work, the second important 
figure of Neue Sachlichkeit photography. Here, as well, we find a programmatic connection of 
images of plants and a formal new definition of modern art. As Carl Georg Heise wrote in his 
introduction to Albert Renger-Patzsch’s epochal illustrated book, Die Welt ist schön:  

“The photograph releases the characteristic section out of the multiplicity of 
guises, underlines the essential, omits that which seduces into digression. It holds 
the observing gaze firmly spellbound on the strangely beautiful organic growth. It 
clarifies what the scientist can only describe. It shows the appeal of the 
substantial: as in the matt glaze of grape skin or the delicate hair on the calyx of 
the echynopsis cupreata. The beauty of color: one can feel the somewhat 
intrusive brilliancy of the dahlia, that must assert itself in the colorful autumn, the 
forceful expressiveness of individual forms: the euphorbia grandicornis cuts 
through the dark surface like a jagged flash.”(3) 
The photograph of the euphorbia grandicornis, a type of cactus discussed here, is among the 
most famous photographs of Albert Renger-Patzsch. It is reproduced in Die Welt ist schön, and 
is thus part of a proper aesthetical program, but originated in connection with a comprehensive 
documentation of plants and here, specifically, of cacti for the Folkwang/Auriga publishing 
house. From 1922 to 1925 Renger-Patzsch produced hundreds of images for contracted freelance 
work.(4) Between 1924 and 1931, four volumes of the series, Die Welt der Pflanze were published 
in which a preference for the prickly flora world was striking: Orchideen (1924), Crassula 
(1924), Kakteen (1930), and Euphorbien (1931). The last two volumes of this series stem 
explicitly, as the cover already shows (fig. 1), from the darkroom of Walther Haage—as well as 
those images that are the starting point and material basis of this series from Erik Niedling. 
Hence, Walther Haage continues a series, to which Renger-Patzsch and others made significant 
contributions. Here, the leader was the dazzling figure of Ernst Fuhrmann, who in 1931 
published a selection of photographs from the Folkwang/Auriga archives in a volume titled Die 
Pflanze als Lebewesen. The introduction of this volume called “Überblick,” tries to describe in a 
few, somewhat enigmatic short pages, the difference between flora and fauna, plants and animals 
and ultimately also the difference between them and the world of humans. In the “extraordinary 
world of appearances,” so Fuhrmann, those that possess “the small ability for abstraction” can 
perceive and recognize that “animals and plants are in a continual interaction with each other” 
and even in the assumed trivial appearance of a leaf, a downright “state building individual of 
the plant” can be determined. This observation is so important to Fuhrmann that he repeats it: “A 
plant is a state. Its individuals have totally different duties to fulfill. Some operate in the ground, 
others are effective in the stem and bark and again others evolve, while some have to perform a 
continual service, such as the tendrils, etc.” Behind the photography of plants is a proper 
aesthetic-philosophical program that finds visual abbreviations of complex cultural attempts at 
meaning in plants. The plant is a miniature world and the photographs show in the “appeal of the 
composition” just those sought and found self-evident structures, that in the world of everyday 
life are no longer taken for granted: “In our photographs, we have found the beautiful forms of 
plants to be self-evident, endlessly variable, yet always perfect.”(5) Die Welt der Pflanze is in 
many ways our world and the photographs should be seen as such—not only as an archetype of 
art, but also as an archetype of nature and culture, flora, fauna, and also technology and art. 

The Neue Sachlichkeit photographer, Albert Renger-Patzsch, was more reserved, but 
nevertheless enthusiastic. His elation for plants and especially for images of cacti can not only be 
seen by the fact that he published several texts on exactly this topic,(6) but also by their restrained 
programmatic trait, that interlocks technology and perception. “The impression of a collective 
vegetal force that is found in most forms of cacti, is in itself worth a plate,” as it says laconically 
in his article “Kakteen-Aufnahmen” for the magazine Photographie für alle. And in his essay on 
the “Photographieren von Blüten,” he establishes a special reference to the perception of an 
object: “The charm” in the photography of plants consists of the fact that one is “forced to adjust 
one’s eyes to the more or less small organism that constitutes a flower, that one is forced to see 
with the eyes of an insect and, for once, to make their world ours.”(7)
The photography of plants in general, and especially of cacti, holds a special place in 
photography and modern art: here not only a revolution of perception is shown en detail, a “new 
way of seeing,” but also a proper aesthetic-cultural theoretical program. The plant and cacti 
images sustain an old ceremony: that of a reconciliation of culture and nature through art. 

Erik Niedling’s work, Formation, is a special form of repetition: it brings back tradition and 
repeats tradition, but transforms this reconstruction through a subtle arrangement in its 
deconstruction. The recurrence of the images throughout the work registers a difference in and 
with the images—in the only assumed identical material. In the studio, almost secretly, negatives 
are transformed into positives that only look as if they are negatives. The original manipulations, 
the retouching and the corrections, are still visible—and last but not least, they appear to shine, 
although they come out of the darkness. The function of the enlargement of the plant images that 
played a central role in the photography of the Neue Sachlichkeit is taken over here through this 
transposition of the negative. It produces a new perspective that alienates the seemingly familiar, 
morphs, and transforms. In this way, Erik Niedling creates images that visually transcribe the 
ambivalence of the Neue Sachlichkeit’s visual program and still remain loyal to the factual 
unemotional approach of the photographs used. He generates a visual tilt that leads to the 
unanswerable question, what is it about now: about positive or negative, documents or works of 
art, historical material or his artistic recreations. At the same time, that is precisely what it is 
about: positive and negative, documents and works of art, historical material and its recreation. 
New images for an old ceremony, that is no longer the same. 

Erik Niedling’s Formation repeats photographic history as cultural history and cultural history as 
photographic history. The starting point is generated by the cactus culture, together with its most 
important characteristic or to be more exact, that of its photographic documentation, which for 
its part registers the complex history of the discovery of the cactus as a privileged object of the 
photography of the Neue Sachlichkeit and its cultural program: complex cultural history (and 
histories). In many ways, it is about a determined cultural history and, as we have seen, the 
stakes are always high: yes, a downright revolution of the nature of perception and thought. 

This subtle repetition of a cultural history as photographic history is due to a certain discovery or 
better yet, several discoveries. Everything began when a volume from the series, Die Welt der 
Pflanze was tracked down in the library of the Angermuseum in Erfurt, in which the photographs 
of the Erfurt-based photographer and nursery owner, Walther Haage were printed. The garden 
center still exists today, and when Erik Niedling went there he discovered something of a 
camera obscura, a dark room in the attic of the apartment house where photographs were hidden 
to protect them from later access. The locked room was opened and a large wooden box was 
brought to light containing hundreds of negatives from Walther Haages’ estate that documented 
the work of his own cactus culture, and that were probably also used for advertising and 
publication purposes. These negatives constitute the material for Erik Niedling’s photographic 
works, who, for his part, spent weeks archiving, securing, studying, printing, arranging, 
grouping, and spreading out the plates to then transform several of them into new large-format 

This photographic metamorphosis of the photographic plates also brought about—in a wondrous 
way—the metamorphosis of the objects. The physical reproduction of the original glass negative 
plates also transformed the material because Erik Niedling remained true to the sober objectivity 
of the given material. He again repeated the transformation that the photographers from the 
period between the wars strived toward and made the photographic language of form legible as a 
program—and that sometimes in a literal sense: scissors, knifes, blades, and garden tools refer 
not only to the cacti culture, but also to the cultural encryption of photography that has always 
been a process of cutting, cropping, and caesura. The work on the cacti is at the same time 
metaphorical, but also highly specific work on and with photography. This also applies to the 
serialized arrangement of cacti, earthenware, and pots, that correspond to a serialized 
arrangement of photographs, or for the archive wall, in which seeds and samples are stored (and 
in which photographic archives could also have found their place and perhaps even have). And 
last but not least, for the allotted use of light without which no cactus culture and also no 
photograph could be successful. The same thing is repeated on the level of the image: the 
manipulation—meant here in the literal sense—of the cacti is doubled in size through 
manipulation of the negative plates, which are recognizable on the enlargements from the C- 
prints in a sometimes irritating way. This brings us to the old question of the objectivity of 
photography, but at the same time photography is identified as a reproduction, as a process of 
manipulation. In one photo the word, wetterfest (weatherproof) can be seen on a pencil that is 
supposed to make the scale of the blades discernible. But here it becomes a light sensor in that it 
underlines what the image is showing—because wetterfest is not that what Johann Faber 
produces, but instead what homo faber produces: images upon images, images of reflection, that 
make complex cultural history readable. 

Erik Niedling succeeds in creating something wonderful and at the same time highly alienating: 
he forces the aesthetic-epistemological program out of the Neue Sachlichkeit photographs and 
leaves them in an idiosyncratic twilight—in the hauntingly beautiful and darkly luminous light 
of photography. And in this light, our cultural history begins to shine anew. 


The reproduction is taken from: Rainer Stamm’s Die Welt der Pflanze. Photographien von 
Albert Renger-Patzsch und aus dem Auriga-Verlag (Ostfildern-Ruit, 1998), p. 16.

Ernst Fuhrmann, “Überblick”, in idem. Ed., Die Welt der Pflanze (Frankfurt am Main, 1931). 
Karl Nierendorf, “Einleitung,” in Karl Blossfeldt, Urformen der Kunst (Berlin, 1928), p.ix. 
Carl Georg Heise, “Einleitung,” in Albert Renger-Patzsch, Die Welt ist schön (Munich, 1928), 
pp. 7f.  
A comprehensive and detailed documentation of the images from Renger-Patzsch can be found 
in Rainer Stamm, Die Welt der Pflanze. Photographien von Albert Renger-Patzsch und aus dem 
Auriga-Verlag (Ostfildern-Ruit, 1998). 
Gert Mattenklott ventures a depiction of this program in several publications. Compare with the 
beautiful documentation of Karl Blossfeldt’s plant photographs: Karl Blossfeldt. Urformen der 
Kunst. Wundergarten der Natur. Das fotografische Werk in einem Band, with a text from Gert 
Mattenklott (Munich, et al, 1994). As to Fuhrmann, see Mattenklott’s “Nachwort,” in Ernst 
Fuhrmann, Was die Erde will (Munich, 1986), pp. 237–55, and “Vorwort,” in Ernst Fuhrmann, 
Neue Wege, vol. 10 (Hamburg, 1983), pp. i–ix.  
See these texts by Albert Renger-Patzsch: “Pflanzenaufnahmen,” in Deutscher Camera 
Almanach, vol. 14 (Berlin, 1923), pp. 49–53; “Das Photographieren von Blüten,” in Deutscher 
Camera Almanach, vol. 15, (Berlin, 1924), pp. 104–12; “Kakteen-Aufnahmen,” in Photographie 
für Alle, no. 6 (Berlin, 1926), pp. 83–86; “Photographische Studien im Pflanzenreich,” in 
Deutscher Camera Almanach, vol. 17 (Berlin, 1926), pp. 137–41; and “Pflanzenaufnahmen im 
Winter,” in Camera (Luzern, January 1927) pp. 186ff. 
Renger-Patzsch 1924 (see note 6), p. 105. 

In: Formation, ZERN (Hrsg. / ed.),  Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern 2008