My name is Jonah, and I’m an accountant turned artist. In this website, I share my cyanotype photographs and what I’m learning in the artist journey. Read more.

What is Cyanotype?

Feb 17, 2020 / Photography / cyanotype process

Man holding a globe containing the night sky and stars on his shoulders
Shouldering Sky, 2011Cyanotype Print With Digital Drawing. 13.7 x 17in. Limited edition of 12.

“Your photograph looks like a painting,” my friend Julius says over brunch. 

“What is it?”

When I show my work to friends and people who’ve never seen antique photographs, this question is usually the first they ask: what is a cyanotype?

Cyanotype (sa-YAN-no-type) is a photographic printing process invented in 1842 by Sir John Herschel—three years after the birth of photography. It involves brushing a photo-sensitive emulsion onto paper and letting it dry in a dark place. The emulsion is a mixture of two chemicals, ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, dissolved in tap water. When these salts are combined, they become UV light sensitive. That’s why you need to let it dry away from sunlight. I dry my coated cyanotype papers for about 30 minutes in the bathroom with no windows and they turn out fine.

When the coated paper is dry, you place a photographic negative on top, expose this layered “sandwich” to ultraviolet light for 12 minutes, wash the paper, and then hang to dry. This process is called contact printing (because the negative and the paper are in direct contact with each other). Cyanotype is usually the first process “alternative process” photographers learn as it’s very easy, not toxic, and can be done at home without specialized equipment. There are two cyanotype formulations in use today. I use the classic cyanotype formula from Bostick & Sullivan in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Contemporary Cyanotype Artists

Anna Atkins, who I wrote about in my artist date at the Getty Center, is the most famous artist connected to the cyanotype printing process. She’s the first person who used photographs in a book in 1843. Photography was invented in 1839, so it’s only a 181 year-old artform. Compared to painting, which is 30,000+ year-old artform (if you consider cave paintings to be the “start”), then photography is just a baby. Anna Atkins is regarded as the first female photographer.

I follow many contemporary cyanotype artists. John Dugdale, who I interviewed, is one of them. I love his work. I took a photography workshop from him in 2011.  Cyanotype is normally thought of as a photographic process, but another cyanotype artist, Casey Roberts, uses cyanotype as a painting medium. I went to one of his workshops in Columbus, Indiana in 2018. I also love his work.

Why I Use Cyanotype

The cyanotype process produces a monochromatic Prussian blue image—this is its trademark. When I show my work to people, this is the first thing they see, and maybe, the only thing they see. It is a shock, considering we’re so used to seeing photographs in color or in black & white (especially if you are going for a documentary or “reality” feel). 

So why use cyanotype?

I use cyanotype in my photography for its emotional expression. In Out of the Blue and One Day, I have a man looking for his future. To contemplate the future, one must look inward, to one’s hopes, fears, and dreams. I think blue supports this inward movement. Blue is a quiet color. I’m a big believer that the process should reflect the concept. Thus, I use cyanotype because it fits the concept of my work.

What do you think? Do you feel the cyanotype blue works or doesn’t work?

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