Italian photographer Guido Mocafico set out to photograph the work of 19th-century glassmakers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, and the results are mesmerising
A circular disc, resembling a blue-ringed iris, emits delicate transparent tentacles; an explosion of golden rays burst from a glimmering nucleus like a firework. An initial glance at Italian photographer Guido Mocafico's series Blaschka and you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at microscopic details of strangely beguiling cells. It is only when you encounter a breathtakingly realistic, gelatinous jellyfish and a menacing squid complete with swirling, light-flecked tentacles that you realise that what you're actually being confronted with is a selection of curious marine creatures – and, even then, that's only half the story.
A few years ago, while visiting Geneva, Mocafico took his four-year-old son to the city's Natural History Museum. There he discovered the work of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, a father-and-son duo who forged their esteemed career in 19th-century Dresden by creating exquisite glass models of aquatic invertebrates and plants. "From the moment I saw their work, I was absolutely mesmerised," the skilled still life photographer enthuses. "It didn't take me more than ten minutes to make my decision: I knew I had to photograph them, that putting them under my light would allow you to see the delicacy and vitality and mystical poetry they hold."
Mocafico promptly began the lengthy process of tracking down museums and collections that held examples of the Blaschkas' intricate creations in order to achieve this dream, all the while delving deeper into the history of the remarkable pair. "Can you imagine a father and son working alone, with no assistants, for more than 30 years of each one's life?" he marvels. "They had an aquarium in their home, and lots of books and they would spend days, nights, weekends just studying and copying from life. I sometimes compare them to the copyist monks of the 11th century, who dedicated their whole lives to copying the Bible. There's something so mysterious and meditative about it."
The Blaschka family originally hailed from Bohemia, from a mountainous region known for processing glass, metals and gems. After relocating to Dresden, Leopold set up his own workshop where he developed the unique glass spinning technique that thereafter enabled him to create such sophisticated pieces. He began his career making glass models of exotic flowers, famously producing over a hundred glass orchids for the Bohemian prince Camille de Rohan who wanted to surround himself by blooms all year round. In 1863, the Staatliches Museum fur Tierkunde in Dresden commissioned him to produce twelve glass sea anemones which so surpassed other models created in papier mache or wax, that soon other scientific institutions were clamouring for Blaschka's expertise. It's interesting to note that while it was possible to preserve marine invertebrates in alcohol for a short time, they soon began to discolour and deteriorate, rendering Blaschka and his son's sublimely life-like pieces invaluable.
After much negotiating, Mocafico managed to track down and photograph around 500 of the Blaschkas' creations from across the globe, and a selection of the resulting images is currently on display at Hamiltons Galleries in London. "My goal when I photographing Blaschka was to not have any kind of photographic intervention," he explains of the process of capturing the beautiful series. "I wanted to be as transparent as I could be as a photographer just to make the objects live by themselves. Being a good still life photographer is just like being a good architect – just fill a rectangle with proper objects, with a proper rhythm and it should work." And work it does, the photographs possessing all the magic of the pieces themselves.
Blaschka is at Hamiltons Gallery until May 24, 2016.