Carl Strüwe: Microcosmos @Steven Kasher

JTF (just the facts): A total of 41 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the back gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1926 and 1959, sow as a mix of vintage and later prints. Physical sizes range from roughly 6×5 to 23×18, and the prints are variously available in editions ranging from 1 to 18. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Almost since the first invention of photography, the medium has been actively used to artistically document the up-close wonders of the natural world. It began with amateur naturalists like William Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins making one-to-one images of botanical specimens in the mid-19th century. And several decades later, when the combination of camera and microscope allowed for magnified images, Wilson Bentley showed us the intricate geometries of snowflakes and frost. Since then, science and photography have been constant partners, capturing the increasingly small discoveries of optical, electron, and now digital micro- (and nano-) scopes.

1920s Germany was a hotbed for the crisp forms of Modernism, epitomized by the elemental purity in the works of Karl Blossfeldt and Albert Renger-Patzsch and by the larger New Objectivity movement. Carl Strüwe’s microphotographs from the same period took those same aesthetic ideas one step further (or perhaps one step “down”), looking for similar resonant geometries in the realms of the microscopic. Using a rectangular lens frame to better mimic the standard presentation of the art world, Strüwe made controlled pictures of the structures of organic life, not looking to document evidence or scientific fact, but to highlight the elegance of the abstractions to be found in the hidden forms of nature.

Diatoms (single-celled algae) offered Strüwe an almost limitless palette of geometries. He made pictures of clusters of spherical shapes, triangles, conical sections, stars, squares, and pinwheel structures, each composition a balance of repetitions, where a single petri dish might hold an astonishing diversity of individuality. Other types of algae extended out into long stringy threads, some with criss-cross weaving and others clumping into dense tangles.

Microscopic animal forms provided Strüwe an alternate set of shapes to explore. At first glance, cross sections of butterfly wings, rabbit capillaries, snail tongues, cockroach stomachs, and sheep sperm might not seem like promising subject matter, but through thoughtful cropping and isolation, Strüwe narrowed the compositions down to graceful patterns and designs, where linear repetitions were transformed into sophisticated arrangements.

By the early 1950s, when the strictness of rigorous visual objectivity felt too harsh with the wounds of World War II still fresh, many German photographers turned to a more personal and expressive approach to photography (including the Subjektive Fotographie group led by Otto Steinert and others). In step with this change in attitude, Strüwe adapted his microphotographs to embrace this warmer approach. His late pictures use multiple exposures to combine and overlap his tiny structures, moving away from deadpan science and toward a more emotional (and even subtly humorous) compositional style.

While arcane scientific imagery has become commonplace in our 21st century age, Strüwe’s images walk us back to the place where it effectively all began, allowing us follow the trail of creativity as it moved from bud, to blossom, to expressive bouquet. His images are now like artifacts, examples drawn from a time when science and art didn’t know each other well and were tentatively getting introduced. With them comes a palpable thrill of discovery and a feeling of risk taking, where astonishing beauty was being found and celebrated in ways that were entirely new.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $2500 and $12000, generally based on size. Strüwe’s prints have only been sparsely available in the secondary markets in the past decade. Prices for these few lots have been under $2000.

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