Cyanotype
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Cyanotype, the second oldest photographic medium still in use, was named for the bluish-green hue, “cyan”, and was invented in 1842 by Sir John Herschel, renowned astronomer and chemist. Herschel (who coined the terms “positive”, “negative”, “photograph” and “snapshot”) was a friend of Fox Talbot, credited with inventing silver based photography in 1839 in parallel with Daguerre. Herschel was a bit jealous of Talbot’s fame and fortune derived from silver based patents (as he had advised Talbot on the silver process including such things as using hypo to fix the images) so he decided to experiment with the photosensitive properties of certain iron salts. The resulting Cyanotype process produces “Prussian Blue” (iron prussate), an extremely stable compound. As a matter of fact, the first photo book was produced by Anna Atkins in 1843 (a year before Fox Talbot’s book, usually given this credit) of botanical samples printed as Cyanotypes. It remains in perfect condition. The Cyanotype was later used as the original architect’s “blue print” process but was replaced by a polymer process in the 1960s.
Cyanotypes, along with many of the other 19th century processes such as albumen, salt, gum, and platinum/palladium prints, have been experiencing an enormous resurgence among fine art photographers and are referred to in modern parlance as “alternative, or alt, processes”. Most modern photos are made on factory manufactured photographic papers which, though technically excellent, all look very mass-produced. They have a smooth undercoating between the paper and the emulsion which usually has, even in matte paper, a smooth gelatin surface. The beauty of prints made in alternative processes is that there is no under coating so the surface texture of the paper shows through all of the tonal values and parts of the image. This gives the photographer working in alt processes another creative choice, that of the aesthetic aspects of the paper such as surface texture (hot or cold pressed), color (pure white, cream, beige, etc.), type of fiber (cotton, linen, wood), etc., much like the printmaker working in media such as intaglio and serigraphy. In the 19th century, the best photographic artists were considered printmakers. Further, there is a subtlety of tones and a gentleness of detail found in hand coated papers not found in the hard edge of the factory made papers. The return to alt processes is a contemporary manifestation of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which was a reaction to mass-produced items resulting from the industrial revolution.
The proper chemistry is mixed and hand coated on the chosen paper, sheet by sheet, by the photographer under very dim light and allowed to dry. As these processes are only sensitive to ultra violet radiation, they must be exposed under sunlight or using a UV source such as a plate burner from the graphic arts industry. There is no way of making an enlargement on these slow papers so the negative must be the actual size of the final image, such as 5”X7”, 8” X 10” or larger.
One must either photograph with a 5X7, 8X10, or larger view camera, make an enlarged film negative from a smaller camera original negative, or, using 21st century technology, scan the smaller camera original negative and print out a graphic arts enlarged duplicate negative on an Image Setter. The resulting negative is then sandwiched with the coated paper, placed in a contact printing frame, and placed in the sun for between 5 and 30 minutes, depending on the negative, the day, the clouds, the time of year, and, some sarcastically allege, the phase of the moon. Cyanotypes are easily processed by washing in plain water and air-dried. This is a slow process reminding the print maker that things happened more slowly in the 19th century!
For me, this is more than a curious process producing prints of incredible longevity…it is a new way of pre- and post-visualizing. I ask myself, “What might work in cyan? What creative or emotional effect will the color have?” Suddenly, ideas for new images as well as some of my older images come to mind that might best be expressed with the subtle blues and gentle tones and textures of the Cyanotype. Some seem obvious, some not so, but it is great to experiment. In any case, I continue to look for what light does to our medium, our spirits, and us. This is my first foray into Cyanotype.
BIBLIOGRAPHY:
1) THE BOOK OF ALTERNATIVE PHOTOGRAPHIC PROCESSES
by Christopher James, Delmar.
2) “The World Journal of Post Factory Photography”, a periodical by Judy Siegel.
E-MAIL:info@post-factory.org

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