It’s raining as I type this up. It’s actually been raining for three days now and I would be disappointed but after the long spell of drought we’ve had, it’s been kind of nice. Even if my plan had been to make some cyanotypes this week.
The first time I saw a cyanotype – the blue-tinted photographic prints made without a camera – was on the wall of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London during a tour guide training day.
I had recently started getting involved with their young people’s collective and as part of our training that day we received a tour of the photographer’s gallery, where we were shown a print by the revolutionary botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, who created cyanotypes of algae to make what would be the world’s very first photo book.
Afterwards we were shown a demonstration of how to make our own and it was there that I first tried making a cyanotype myself and fell in love with this utterly magical and simple way of creating and printing images directly from light.
Making cyanotypes is pretty easy and you don’t even need a camera or a lot of fancy equipment or a darkroom. All you need is a paper coated with light-sensitive chemicals, an object to print from and a bit of sunlight. In the beginning I bought pre-coated paper solar- or sunpaper (Silverprint has a good one) but after a while I got interested in mixing my own chemicals and learning the historical process behind it, which hasn’t changed since Atkins’ Victorian days.
The easiest way is to make a cyanotype photogram, where you place an object directly onto the paper but you can also use a negative as your object, which is a little trickier but can give very detailed images. You put it somewhere with sunlight and leave it in the sun to expose the image until the paper has changed colour. Afterwards you put the paper in a tray or tub of tap water while gently rocking it for 5-10 min to develop it, rinse it under the tap and hang it or leave it flat to dry. That’s it.
A print lying exposed in a patch of sun on the floor of my living room
A different print after being exposed to light but before I washed it
The first print after I developed it in water – as the print dries the blue becomes a darker tone
Ever since that first attempt it’s never stopped being magical for me to see the chemicals on the paper change colour in the sun or seeing the image slowly appear when I put it in the water. It feels like a conjuring trick, like some kind of old light magic that has survived time.
What I really enjoy about it, is how tactile the whole process is. Mixing the chemicals, spreading them on the paper, placing my object, exposing the image and developing the print involves my hands from start to finish. Even the smell of the chemicals and the particular feel of the paper I use has become familiar to me. Because so much of our lives are now lived digitally, it’s been a kind of small revelation to me to discover that it’s possible to create and make something, with not much but my hands and a bit of sun.
A fresh batch of digital negatives I made using photoshop and printed out on my standard inkjet printer.
You don’t know until you test the negatives whether they will work as cyanotypes or not,
so it’s always exciting to try a new one out
Watching the print change colour as it’s being exposed is always one of my favourite moments.
It has taken a little bit of time and a few experiments before I started getting the kind of images I was after, especially with the negatives but as frustrating as it can sometimes be when it goes wrong, I enjoy how experimental the process and how each printing day is different and can’t be 100% controlled or planned because you can’t control nature or the way the light is that day, whether a cloud suddenly goes in front of the sun and weakens the light, so you have to adjust the exposure time you might just have calculated.
I don’t think we always share enough of the behind-the-scenes process or our “failed” attempts but without them you don’t really get to the good ones, so I thought I’d show some snapshots from my phone of what it looks like when I’m printing and present my “finished” cyanotypes in a little slideshow gallery instead.
I hope you’ll enjoy them.