I enrolled in RCHUMS 202: Cyanotypes by mistake. I was originally enrolled in a ceramics class, but after a few classes, I realized that ceramics and I were not meant to be. In need of a change, I mistook RCHUMS 202 for a music class that I wanted to take, and I emailed Lecturer Raymond Wetzel asking to enroll. You can imagine my surprise when I realized that I had actually enrolled in a class on cyanotypes.
You might be wondering, what is a cyanotype? A cyanotype is a photographic print.
The making of cyanotypes is a relatively simple process. You mix together two chemicals — ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide — and paint them onto a piece of paper, fabric or any other material. Then, you place on top of the material the object you want to make a print of and put it in the sun, where the chemicals develop. After exposing them to a chemical mix, you wash the paper with water which removes the leftover residue and leaves a vibrant cyan print. It’s a fun and simple low-cost photographic printing process.
In 1842, Sir John Herschel discovered the cyanotype process and used it to reproduce mathematical tables along with notes and diagrams. His friend, photographer Anna Atkins, used the cyanotype process in order to produce prints of plants. Atkins used plant specimens collected from shorelines of Great Britain and made cyanotypes. She realized that if exposed for the right amount of time, the cyanotype process could capture the most minute of details. This attention to detail opened the door to a new age of scientific illustration. Before then, scientists relied on hand-drawn approximations. Her work, although not nearly as famous as the work of the process’ creator, inspired many — if not all — cyanotype artists.
In RCHUMS 202, we started making cyanotypes the same way Atkins did, by using plants as our subjects. From there, we progressed to found objects. I used a hair clip, jewelry, a carabiner, a lock, coins, a USB drive and film strips my roommate gave me.
Then we ventured into the creation and use of digital negatives. With my own photos — some taken for The Michigan Daily, some from concerts and others from my photo archive — I started to create a series of cyanotypes using digital negatives. Inspired by a classmate’s idea, I tried drawing on paper with a white crayon before painting on the chemical mix 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 up into pieces in order to create a collage.
Using a reverse of that process, I cut up three digital negatives and arranged them together before exposing them to the light.
One day in class, our professor 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 away to reveal a shade of blue — the shade depending on exposure time. From there, you choose to either keep the color or wash and dye the piece.
Not only is the blue a result of the chemical process but, it is also utilized by artists to generate symbolism that adds to the story behind their pieces.
In November I covered an event for The Daily. The event was organized by the Michigan Movement, a student organization which seeks to provide resources for the houseless population in Ann Arbor. At this event, I met an older couple named Mark and Peggy. Mark asked me to take a picture of them.
I found that in blue, Mark and Peggy’s features stood out more. Their faces were highlighted and bodies and movements defined. The background was less distracting, allowing whoever is looking at the photo to focus solely on Mark and Peggy. With blue, I could force viewers to look at their faces instead of ignoring them as many do with the houseless. I chose to keep the color blue as I felt it gave vibrance to their joy and a home within the frame.
We learned how to bleach and dye cyanotypes. Using laundry detergent, we’d wash away the cyan color print before placing them into dyes. Some dyes we used were Tumic acid, Tannic acid, Potassium permanganate, coffee and different teas.
Throughout the semester, our professor 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 find myself focusing on the why behind my choice of framing, lighting and more.
I’ve found the production of cyanotypes to be a simple and soothing art form. There is something deeply satisfying about seeing a print develop in front of your eyes while being able to manipulate every step of its creation. To sit and deliberate over the color blue. If you can, go to an art store and buy a cyanotype kit, find a sunny windowsill and dried leaves or funky objects, and call upon the sun to be your artistic partner. In around 20 minutes, you’ll have made a cyanotype.
Assistant Photo Editor Lila Turner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.