Explore the Art of the Cyanotype. In this article, we examine the step-by-step process of cyanotype printing and its place within the realm of photography. You can decide for yourself if you agree whether this is a photographic medium or not.
When it comes to alternative photographic processes, cyanotype is a popular technique employed by photographers and photographic artists. The question of whether cyanotype printing is considered photography sparks ongoing debates within the photographic community. Its unique blend of photographic elements and chemical alchemy makes cyanotype an interesting method worth exploring.
Cyanotype printing involves the use of light-sensitive chemicals to create photographic images. This method was first developed by Sir John Herschel in 1842 as a method for reproducing architectural plans, which we still refer to today as blueprints. The process relies on the reaction between ammonium iron (III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide, which when exposed to ultraviolet light, results in a vibrant blue image on a light-coloured substrate such as paper.
One person who had no trouble describing the cyanotype process as photography was Anna Atkins, who was a member of the Botanical Society of London, pioneering in the field of photography for science. She used cyanotypes to publish “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions” between 1843 and 1853. The process used to create these prints would be better described as photograms, where an image is made by placing an object directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material and then exposing it to light.
Let's compare the cyanotype process to prints made from photographic film. Chemical baths and light-sensitive paper produce a positive image, where a film negative acts as a barrier between the light exposure and the paper surface. In the case of traditional film photography, when prints are created in the darkroom through a wet chemical process, no one challenges these as anything other than part of a true photographic process.
Cyanotype is also a wet chemical process. Objects placed on the chemically coated paper flag the light, acting as a barrier between ultraviolet rays and the paper surface. I’m sure you can see where I am going with this comparison.
Here, I will walk you through my process of creating cyanotypes. In order to make the cyanotype process even closer to the darkroom process, I will include my own images into the cyanotype medium by first printing them onto inkjet transparency film. This “negative” transparency technique allows for the preservation of the photographic essence while opening up a world of creative opportunities.
- Chemicals: potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate, usually available to buy together as a cyanotype kit
- Paint brushes
- Vessel or jar
- Watercolour paper
- A4 inkjet printable transparency film
- Paper or cardboard to protect the surface you work on
Prepare the Chemical Mixture: blend equal parts of ammonium iron (III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide. A typical ratio is 10 grams of each chemical mixed with 100 milliliters of water. Readymade cyanotype kits are widely available to purchase: all you have to do is add water to each bottle and shake, and your chemicals are ready to use.
Printing the Transparencies: Select your photographs, convert to black and white, invert the colors, and then mirror the image before printing them onto transparency film. You can buy printable acetate, which is compatible with inkjet printers to do this.
Prepare your Surfaces and Turn Off the Lights: Protect your workspace from any chemical spillages by putting down old newspaper. Once both solutions are combined, you will need to work in subdued light to ensure that any present ultraviolet light does not diminish the mixed solution or the coated paper. I coated my paper in the evening with a lamp on in the far corner of the room.
Coating the Paper: Apply an even coat of the cyanotype mixture onto watercolor paper or another suitable material using a brush. I chose to use a sponge brush for an even coat. Let the coated paper dry thoroughly; you may use a hairdryer to speed up the process. Apply a second coat and let dry. Put your coated paper in dark storage, such as a light tight bag or envelope until ready to use.
Assembling the Printing Frame: Place your coated paper and transparency inside a clipframe. This ensures proper contact between the transparency and the coated paper during exposure and also keeps your paper safe from contaminants outside. Place a black cloth or card over your frame until you are ready to begin the exposure.
Expose Your Cyanotypes: The exposure time for cyanotypes can vary depending on several factors, including the strength of UV light, the density of your negative or object, and the desired result. However, as a general guideline, exposure time can be anywhere between 3 to 20 minutes depending on the weather and levels of UV exposure where you live. For better accuracy without wasting too much coated paper, consider exposing a test strip – covering a section of the strip at varying intervals. I created two test strips, the first was exposed at intervals of 3, 5, and 8 minutes, and the second was exposed at intervals of 10, 12, and 15 minutes. This allowed me to make a judgement on the best exposure, which I considered to be between 12 and 15 seconds for the light conditions. If you are using a UV lamp or other artificial source, exposure times may need to be longer. No UV bulb is as powerful as the sun.
Rinse and Fix the Print: After exposure, remove the transparency from the frame and immediately rinse the coated paper in running water until the runoff appears clear. At this stage, you will be able to see detail in your image and the color will be a reasonably deep hue. Hang the prints to dry, and over the course of a few hours, the hue will deepen to its final shade. To speed up the final hue reveal, submerge the print in a fixative bath made of one tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide dissolved in a liter of water for a few minutes. Rinse the print again in running water.
Drying and Displaying Your Cyanotype Print: My neighbors must really wonder about me, but I peg my cyanotypes onto the washing line to drip dry. Once they are dry, flatten if needed between the pages of a good coffee table book, and then, you can proudly display your cyanotype print.
There is something very appealing about having my work displayed as a cyanotype. I wouldn’t normally consider hanging these images, but the added process has made me appreciate these images a little more than I normally would, and I think one or two might make it onto my walls.
Have I convinced you that cyanotype is a legitimate photographic medium? We've explored the fascinating world of cyanotype printing together, and now, it's your turn! Whether you're a seasoned cyanotype enthusiast or just discovering this alternative photographic method for the first time, we would love to hear about your experiences, experiments, and creative outcomes. Share your tips and even your own cyanotype prints in the comments.