An intro to the cyanotype print.
Updated: Aug 27, 2020
Cyanotypes are a form of photograph created in the early days of photography. Essentially a blue print, these images have been used to record plant-based life and as construction blueprints - hence the name.
You'll often find the cyanotype referred as both a historical process and an alternative process within photography, I, myself consider it as both.
Designed in the 1800s this process is without doubt a historical one much like the other early methods of photography, and you'll easily find such prints available in museums such as the V&A in London.
However in modern day photography this process finds itself within the realm of alternative photography due to its ability to create so-called 'camera-less' photographs, where the images created are done so with objects or plants without any need for a camera.
The cyanotype also lends itself incredibly well to experimentation and pushing the limits of photography and often extending to the realm of art.
But for me the main aspect of this process that lands it in the category of alternative is its striking difference to the likes of traditional chemical prints that would be made in the traditional darkroom. Instead of prints that are black and white, or coloured created with film the cyanotype produces a print in a blue monochrome - which could then be later toned with all manner of substances.
So how are cyanotype prints made?
With the combining of two different chemicals (potassium cyanide and ferric ammonium cytrate) a light-sensitive emulsion can be created that on exposure to sunlight will expose an image onto paper. As the chemicals are mixed and then painted onto a suitable surface there are many choices of papers that can be used to print your image on.
The traditional choice is a form of watercolour paper as this is particularly successful but other options range from fabrics such as cotton and silk to differing papers such as tissue paper.
Once an image has been exposed onto the chosen paper, which is done through contact printing - placing a negative (either film or digital printed onto acetate) onto the light- sensitive paper and exposing it, the image simply has to be washed in water to process it.
Unlike traditional chemical prints, cyanotypes don't require chemical processing; once the print has been washed in standard water and allowed to dry it is permanent.
Although it is worth noting that an image printed on a particularly delicate or unsuitable surface has a tendency to entirely wash off during processing and this can also happen if the prints aren't exposed for long enough.
So those are the basics when it comes to this process. I find it the most rewarding method of creating imagery purely due to the leniency it gives to create truly stunning images and the ability to experiment to constantly improve and try something new.
Of course my work has been in no way perfect, honestly I've probably made every mistake possible when it comes to this process and I've lost count of the number of times the image has washed away in the water after exposure, but this is all part of the process in any art practice. The thing about this process for me is the fact that almost anything goes in regards to what might work to create images. I've successfully printed on things like tissue paper and canvas, while others have great success with fabric and other materials. And the best thing about this process is the rich blue tones that are always produced, and the longer a piece is exposed for the darker those tones become.