washing cyanotypes

Cyanotypes arriving soon – do not open in daylight!

Over the last week, I have been preparing cyanotype paper for one of the practices that we will do together during the Autumn season of DCP. This activity will involve photochemical alchemy, making cyanotype prints using sunlight and botanical matter.  

In the next few days, you should receive a ‘Please Do Not Bend’ envelope from me with several sheets of cyanotype paper enclosed. The cyanotype paper is not as light-sensitive as regular photographic paper; however, please keep it out of daylight. Only open the envelope in subdued light – i.e. a room with the curtains drawn to block out as much sunlight (UV light) as possible. 

During the session, I will show you how we can make photograms with the cyanotype paper, botanical matter and daylight – but all that is to come. For now, I just wanted to let you know what will be arriving in the post and to ask not to open it daylight If you haven’t received the package by Friday 2nd October, please let me know

You can now buy cyanotype paper, quite easily, however, I thought it would be nice for us to work with the more unpredictable nature of the handmade paper that I have sent. 

Also known as blueprinting (used to reproduce architectural and engineering drawings) and sun printing, cyanotypes are notable as been dark ‘Prussian’ blue. The process is one of the simplest/ safest forms of photographic printing. To make a cyanotype an object is placed on paper which has been treated with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, after which it is exposed to daylight (ideally, sunlight) and washed in water. The water removes any remaining light-sensitive solution, turning the unexposed areas of the paper to dark blue,

Ideally, for our session, it would be good to have a few other things on hand to help make it all work:

  • A piece of glass or Perspex (A5 or larger) – for example, I sometimes use a dismantled picture frame. The glass will hold the botanical matter tight against the cyanotype paper producing a sharper more defined image. It’s okay too if you don’t have the glass/ perspex.

If you are using an old picture frame that the backing board is also a good surface to place the paper on. With a couple of bulldog clips, you can make an even tighter connection between the object (if flat) and the paper. 

  • A sink/ running water – the exposed print is ‘fixed’ by washing it under running water for about 5 mins.  
  • Somewhere to hang and dry your finished print – I either peg the print to a clothes stand or use a bit of string to make a make-shift line and peg the print to that. 

Below are a few photos I took while making the paper and doing a few test prints with the solution I have made. There is also a little background information on cyanotypes and my interest in the process at the end of the blog. 

Cyanotypes and Anna Atkins

The development of photography as both a science and image-making process has many pathways that lead back to the use of botanical and mineral matter to make images, including Henry Fox Talbot’s salt prints and Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes of algae and ferns. Atkins was botanist and self-taught photographer, whose three-volume book, Photographs of British Algae, appeared between 1843 and 1853 (often regarded as the earliest photographic books). Each page featuring a delicately hand-labelled specimen from Atkins’s huge seaweed collection, produced using the cyanotype process, or what she called photogenic drawing. Atkins learnt the cyanotypes process from her friend Sir John Herschel, who was the first discovered the process in 1842, just three years after the official announcement of the discovery of photography.

 

Anna Atkins, from top left: “Peacock” (1861), “Laminaria phyllitis” (1844-45), “Papaver rhoeas” (1861), and “Alaria esculenta” (1849-50). Credit…via Hans P. Kraus Jr., New York (top left and bottom right); The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
Primal poetics of matter

In my own para-photographic practice (a practice that is related to photography but not always abiding by its ‘rules’) I am interested in exploring various forms of ecological image-making that draw on the primal poetics of matter, where ‘nature’ writes itself into the photographic object as a chemical process and interaction, recording the material durations of various agents: human, mineral, plant, chemical that all form part of the image’s production. For me, Atkin’s work highlights this where the botanical matter she works with – the algae and ferns – become agents of their own image. 

Keep an eye out for the package of cyanotype paper coming your way soon – and don’t open it in the light!

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Sam Nightingale is a visual artist and researcher. He uses experimental forms of photography and speculative fieldwork to explore diverse landscapes and the geopoetic interfaces between history, ecology and the image. Through creative practice, he seeks to make sensible environments that we are a part but that also persist beyond the limits of human experience – what he describes as the arts of noticing otherwise.

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