Alternative Process

Experimenting with cyanotypes

IT CAN SEEM a rare thing in the UK, a bright sunny day complete with clear blue sky. I live in a city by the sea where a heavy, cold fog sometimes drifts in when the water is warmer than the land. Standing outside looking up at the sky I watch large white fluffy clouds cluster and bloom. There won’t be rain today but as they move steadily across the sky they occasionally cover the sun, cutting the light and temporarily cooling the air. I sigh. A clear day would make things easier.

Over the past few months I’ve been making cyanotypes - those curious pictures whose tonal range stretches across the colour Prussian Blue. I can make them at home; first using that bright sun to develop and then a deep tray in the kitchen sink to wash and clear. On dark grey days I prepare sheets of paper by coating them with a watery green solution, which in a thin layer turns a lovely shade of yellow reflecting the very light source that will eventually turn the pictures blue.

I try a variety of different papers, single coat them, double coat them, make tests for shadows and UV density. I make endless notes about exposure times and Photoshop curves. I start to print digital negatives to make A4 contact prints and I think about how I might make the pictures bigger. I borrow items from the local natural history museum (The Booth Museum), a magpie in a case, a bird’s wing, and various animal skulls, a fox, a sheep, a cow, a crocodile. I bribe my children with extra pocket money to be my models’ for an hour or so. I have an idea about people and bodies, bones and wings. My youngest swoops, dips and twirls holding the bird’s wing close against her shoulder. She moves slowly, gracefully about our bedroom until she tires and stops. My eldest takes the fox’s skull, gently opens its jaws and holds it out as if in offering. Next she grips the antler that Grandma gave them, strongly in her left hand and holds it firmly to her forehead. We have researched the way antlers sit on a deer’s skull and she’s determined to get it the right way round. I love the way they connect to these things. I am reminded that we’re all made from the same stuff, water, air, light, flesh and bone.

Looking at the pictures I wonder if I even like the blue. I wonder if the primary colour make the pictures seem naïve and artless. It’s an unsophisticated process invented in the mid-1800s primarily for copying scientific notes. With more googling I learn that it’s possible to ‘tone’ the prints using the tannin in red wine, tea or coffee to replace the bright blue tones with shades of brown or grey. The first experiments I make aren’t very successful but I get braver and make a thick strong instant coffee bath for one print and a 10 bag strong bath of tea for another. Once the prints are dry I slice them in half vertically and view the differences side by side – one half tea, the other half coffee. I start to think of how the images could be cut, toned in different ways and repositioned, that this simple image process and the tactile making of these pictures is beginning to produce something new for me.

So I will continue with these experiments in blue. The other day I took a photograph of the back of my youngest daughter as she lay on the floor, body twisting in one direction with her legs bent in another. I take it with the intention of making a drawing. I haven’t made a drawing but I do like the picture. I see how it sits within my new strange collection of wings and bones, hands and bodies. I like it. This is where I want to go.