From Georgia O'Keeffe’s powerful floral paintings to the wilting blooms which dominate the Dutch masters’ still lifes, flowers are one of the most universal symbols of beauty in the Western world, and they’re utterly timeless in their appeal. Among the greatest aficionados of the charming plants is Leendert Blok, a Holland-born photographer whose passion in his time was second to none, and whose extensive photographs of various flowers is the subject of a beautiful new book, Silent Beauties, published by Hatje Cantz.
As the story goes, Blok spent time studying journalism in South Africa in the early 20th century, before returning to Lisse, near Amsterdam, where he became fascinated with the flowers cultivated in nurseries there. From tulips, daffodils and dahlias to hyacinths, irises and gladiolas, no specimen went untouched by his curious lens, and in pursuit of his passion, the photographer soon opened a company whose principal focus was the produce the display catalogues of the blooms created there.
Though botanical in purpose, Blok’s images are undeniably aesthetic in their appeal. His experiments with colour photography, still a relatively new technique at the time, draw his subjects out of their two dimensional format and into something new entirely; minute variations in colour, texture and form are magnified under his keen lens, seemingly blossoming into portraits rather than still life shots of inanimate objects. “For Blok, photography relates above all to the gaze,” the book’s publisher Hatje Cantz reveals, adding a new layer of meaning to the wrinkled-ear-like petals and defiant but wavering stems. Lighting was of the utmost importance to the practitioner, leading him to illuminate each subject to create the sense of a tiny chiaroscuro sculpture cut out against a neutral background.
Now regarded as one of the greatest influences on botanical photography of the early to mid-19th century, Blok was a pioneer of realism. Moreover, his considerable archive of work – a diverse and compelling perspective on the flora bred in the Netherlands in the era – is a joy to behold; a tiny and captivating remnant of 1920s botany.
Silent Beauties by Leendert Blok is out now, published by Hatje Cantz.