Photographic report: Cyanotypes
I registered for RCHUMS 202: Cyanotypes by mistake. I was originally enrolled in a ceramics class, but after a few classes I realized that ceramics and I weren’t cut out for it. Needing a change, I mistook RCHUMS 202 for a music class I wanted to take, and emailed lecturer Raymond Wetzel asking him to sign me up. You can imagine my surprise when I realized that I had actually signed up for a course on cyanotypes.
You may be wondering, what is a cyanotype? A cyanotype is a photographic print.
Making cyanotypes is a relatively simple process. You mix two chemicals – ammonium ferric citrate and potassium ferricyanide – and paint them on a piece of paper, fabric or other material. Then you place the object you want to print on the material and put it in the sun, where the chemicals grow. After exposing them to a chemical mixture, you wash the paper with water which removes the remaining residue and leaves a vibrant cyan print. It’s fun and simple at low cost photographic printing process.
In 1842, Mr. John Herschel discovered the cyanotype process and used it to reproduce mathematical tables as well as notes and diagrams. His friend, photographer Anna Atkins, used the cyanotype process to produce prints of plants. Atkins used plant specimens taken from the shores of Britain and made cyanotypes. She realized that if exposed for the right amount of time, the cyanotype process could capture the smallest details. This attention to detail opened the door to a new era of scientific illustration. Before that, scientists relied on hand-drawn approximations. His work, while nowhere near as famous as the work of the creator of the process, has inspired many – if not all – cyanotype artists.
In RCHUMS 202 we started making cyanotypes the same way Atkins did, using plants as subjects. From there, we progressed to found objects. I used a hair clip, jewelry, carabiner, padlock, coins, thumb drive, and film strips my roommate gave me.
Then we ventured into creating and using digital negatives. With my own photos – some taken for The Michigan Daily, some from concerts, and some from my photographic archive – I began creating a series of cyanotypes using digital negatives. Inspired by a classmate’s idea, I tried drawing on paper with a white pencil before painting over the chemical mixture to create an underlying effect.
For another piece, I took an image created from a digital negative of a double exposure photo and cut it into pieces to create a collage.
Using the reverse of this process, I cut out three digital negatives and arranged them together before exposing them to light.
One day in class, our teacher asked us a simple question: “why the color blue?
When creating cyanotypes, you don’t choose to have the color blue, you choose to keep the cyanotype blue. The chemical combination of Ferric Ammonium Citrate and Potassium Ferricyanide washes out to reveal a shade of blue – shade depends on exposure time. From there, you choose to either keep the color or wash and dye the piece.
Not only is blue the result of the chemical process, but it is also used by artists to generate symbolism that adds to the story behind their pieces.
In November, I covered an event for Le Quotidien. The event was organized by the Michigan Movement, a student organization that seeks to provide resources to Ann Arbor’s homeless population. At this event, I met an older couple named Mark and Peggy. Mark asked me to take their picture.
I found that in blue, Mark and Peggy’s features stood out more. Their faces were highlighted and their bodies and movements defined. The background was less distracting, allowing anyone viewing the photo to focus solely on Mark and Peggy. With blue, I could force viewers to look at their faces instead of ignoring them like many do with homeless people. I chose to keep the color blue as I felt it gave sparkle to their joy and a home in the frame.
We learned how to bleach and dye cyanotypes. Using laundry detergent, we would wash the cyan color print before placing them in the dyes. Some colorants we used were tumic acid, tannic acid, potassium permanganate, coffee and different teas.
Throughout the semester, our teacher emphasized the importance of the why rather than the how.
I still don’t have a well-formulated answer to his question of why, but now I’m focusing on the why behind my choice of framing, lighting, and more.
I found producing cyanotypes to be a simple and calming art form. There’s something deeply satisfying about watching a print unfold before your eyes while being able to manipulate every step of its creation. Sit down and deliberate on the color blue. If you can, go to an art store and buy a cyanotype kit, find a sunny windowsill and some dried leaves or funky objects, and call on the sun to be your art partner. In about 20 minutes, you will have completed a cyanotype.
Associate Photo Editor Lila Turner can be reached at email@example.com.