A series of unusual and beautiful images by one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated photographers, Horst P. Horst, have been brought together in a new publication presenting a collection of largely unseen, kaleidoscopic and abstract works, entitled Patterns From Nature.
The book draws from the original 1946 publication of the same name, along with presenting a larger selection of unpublished images from the photographer’s archive.
The series is distinctly set apart from the high glamour that his is predominantly known for, as a revered figure of the fashion industry, who worked for Vogue and House & Garden for sixty years, documenting couture, celebrities and interiors.
The original book presented a series of straight, close-up, black-and-white shots of botanical specimens, including plants, shells, and minerals, naturally lit and often experimental in composition (spreads showing original book picured above). They were taken in Mexico, New York Botanical Gardens, and along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, using a 5×4 inch Graflex Graphic View camera and a Rolleiflex shooting 2¼x2¼ inch negatives. With these abstract studies of the natural world, there is an emphasis on repeated structures, both in the individual pictures and in their comparative pairing, between, for example, coral and cauliflower (pictured in the spread above, bottom left).
“For the most part, the pictures found here [are] of common objects daily passing before our eyes. Nothing has been added to enhance them. They are photographed without artificial arrangements and special effects, in their own setting and in their paper light. Direct or diffused sunlight coming from above caresses their surface and in some instances dew or rain brings relief into their fine texture,” Horst writes.
“I had known and admired Karl Blossfeldt’s wonderful photographs of plants, and their revelation of the similarity of vegetable forms to arts forms like wrought iron and Gothic architecture,” he writes.
Spread from Patterns from Nature showing Horst’s Kodak Negetive Album from 1946, containing negetives and contact prints used in prep for the original book.
The final pages of the original book contained a series of complex collage works, with mosaic-like images appearing as though reflected upon many angled mirrored surfaces. The author of the book, Martin Barnes, traces similarities to ink blots that form the basis of the Rorschach test, and to William S. Burroughs’s ‘infinity pictures’ (or photo collages) created with mathematician Ian Sommerville.
Horst believed that organic patterns could be put to commercial use: “The ten following pages are photographs shown in simple repeat. The resulting patterns are immediately applicable to industrial fields such as textiles, wallpaper, carpets, plastics, glass, ceramics, china, leather, book-binding and jewelry. It is also a demonstration of how modern design can be achieved through modern means,” writes Horst.
And Barnes notes a specific reference in the New York Times in June 1947, to this materialising: ‘Photographs of a Mexican scene and still-life subjects have inspired a new group of decorative fabrics by Wesley Simpson just introduced at Macy’s. Based on photographs by Horst, the designs feature a cross-like arrangement of motifs…’
For anyone wanting to try out creating patterns like these for themselves, Barnes includes an extensive breakdown of Horst’s formula…
“Horst made four contact prints from one of his 2¼ x2¼ or 5×4 negatives – two the ‘correct’ way round, and two ‘flipped’ across the vertical axis to produce a mirror image. These he arranged in a square or rectangle, with the correctly printed images the right way up at the top left and upside down at the bottom right, and the flipped images in the same orientation at top right and bottom left. He then repeated this grid of four, joining each arrangement edge to edge. In a few instances, he chose to deviate from this formula, creating, for example, a single row of ‘mirrored’ images with a second row below that is a complete mirror image of the one above but shifted along horizontally by the width of a single contact print.”
Horst: Patterns from Nature, by Martin Barnes is published by Merrell and the V&A, £30. www.merrellpublishers.com