21 February 2016

Celebrating Blue - cyanotypes at the Worcester Art Museum

Annie Lopez, Medical Conditions, printed on paper and stitched, 2013.
The Worcester Art Museum is  over-shadowed by Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and we don't visit this marvelous institution as frequently as it deserves.  Prompted by an article in the New York Times, we went to see Cyanotypes: Photography's Blue Period, an exhibit showcasing 78 works by 40 artists, including photography pioneers such as Anna Atkins,  and contemporary names like Christian Marclay. (Thank you for driving, Alex and Robin.)

Artists are continually confronted by disruptive technology, but for over 150 years photographers, both professional and amateur alike, have created cyanotypes, on paper and fabric, in a process basically unchanged since the method was discovered by British chemist John Frederick Herschel (1792-1871).

View of exhibit.

Anna Atkins, Honey Locust Leaf and Pod, circa 1854.
In the process, a mixture of potassium ferricyanide and ammonium ferric citrate is brushed onto paper or cloth.  After the cloth or paper dries, away from direct light, a photographic negative or an object is placed on the substrate, which is then exposed to sunlight.  Following exposure, the print is washed in water, and the ferrous ions react with the potassium ferricyanide to produce ferric ferrocyanide, or Prussian blue.

The chemicals involved are stable, posed little or no particular health hazard as long as they are not ingested, and making the prints involves no darkroom. Hence it was a popular medium for amateur photographers, who made the three postcards below, using photographic negatives.

Three home-made cyanotype postcards, early 1900's.

This ease of use, however, seems to have made the medium unsuitable for "real" photographers, such as  Edward Sheriff Curtis, who "proofed", or tested, his negatives using this quick and easy process.

Edward Curtis, Clayoquot Shaman Woman, circa 1915.

Although quilt makers such as Tafi Brown are part of the current cyanotype revival, the only textile work in this show was a large linen piece by Hugh Scott-Douglas; the darker areas are formed by the irregular distribution of iron salts. The monochromatic palette means that tonal variations have a heightened impact, especially in contrast to the rigid grid.

Hugh Scott-Douglas, Untitled, 2012.

As long as the object being printed is in close contact with the paper or fabric, the medium handles details extremely well, as seen below in this print of a piece of lace.  Contemporary artists often use plexiglass on top of the object or negative,  to form a "sandwich" while the print is exposed to light.  This is how Annie Lopez made the prints for the dress in the first image in this post, above. A meditation on her father's Alzheimer's disease, Ms. Lopez printed images, using acetate negatives, onto tamale paper, which her family uses every Christmas, and found the paper held together well through printing and stitching.

Maker unknown, Lace Sample, French, early 20th century.

The exhibit was organized by Nancy Burns, Assistant Curator at the Worcester Museum, and Kristina Wilson, Associate Professor of Clark University; Dr. Wilson's students prepared engaging essays for the excellent catalog, ISBN 978-0-936042-06-0. For those wishing to experiment with the process, prepared fabric and paper, as well as the chemical preparations, can be found at http://www.blueprintsonfabric.com/index.php