Friday, February 12, 2016

Cyanotype, Photography’s Blue Period, Is Making a Comeback

The Phoenix artist Annie Lopez wanted to stand out among her contemporary peers. Instead of trying to invent something utterly new, she has been turning to a 174-year-old photographic printing process — cyanotypes, once used for copying architectural drawings — and giving it her own distinctive twist.
Ms. Lopez created a dress pattern cut from tamale wrapping paper and printed all over with cyanotypes, which have a distinctly cyan-blue color. She printed the cyanotypes herself, in a process that took about 25 minutes per sheet of images. No darkroom was needed.
That ease has brought cyanotypes roaring back to relevance, attracting a surprising number of true-blue adherents showing their work in galleries. The images are just now getting their first full-blown museum exhibition, “Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period,” on view at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Mass., through April 24. It features 78 works by some 40 artists, including eminent figures like Edward Steichen and F. Holland Day, alongside contemporary artists like Christian Marclay and Ms. Lopez.
“It’s such a great process, and it’s pretty easy,” Ms. Lopez said, noting that she even teaches it to high school students.
Making a cyanotype involves placing a negative image — which could be a photographic negative, or an object, as in a photogram — on treated paper or fabric. (Ms. Lopez took from her own life and her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s, using photocopies of medical books as well as comments made by family members.) After an iron-based solution is brushed on, the paper is placed under ultraviolet light, or in direct sun, to develop.
“One of the best-selling points of this exhibition is that cyanotypes are both underrepresented and trendy at the same time,” said Nancy Burns, who organized the Worcester show with Kristina Wilson of Clark University. “It’s very hip in contemporary art, when you start looking for it.”
The cyanotype process — from the Greek cyan, or “dark-blue impression” — was invented around 1842 by the British astronomer and chemist John Frederick Herschel (1792–1871). The benefits of the format were evident from the start.
Anna Atkins, considered by many to be the first female photographer and the first person to create a book of photo-based images, blended science and art in botanical cyanotypes, starting in the 1840s. Atkins’s “Honey Locust Leaf and Pod” (circa 1854) is featured in the Worcester show.
The fine-art application was scarce for more than a century after Atkins’s day — rare enough that Steichen once called his use of cyanotypes a “secret” in a letter to his friend and mentor Alfred Stieglitz. For fine artists, it was often considered an “ugly stepchild” of the larger medium, Ms. Burns said, “because it was too easy.”
“Medical Conditions” (2013), a vintage-inspired dress in which the artist Annie Lopez developed cyanotypes onto tamale wrappers with images representing family memories. Credit Annie Lopez
Amateurs embraced cyanotypes more easily. “In terms of popular usage they were big until the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and women’s periodicals were giving people instructions on how to make them,” Ms. Burns said. “But then they fell off the map of photography.”
Well into the 20th century, the long-dormant medium was awakened by artists looking for something different.
“As of the 1960s, people started to be interested in reviving old photo processes,” said Dusan Stulik, a former senior scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute who has studied cyanotypes for decades. “Cyanotypes handle subtle light well, and they are fairly sturdy.”
On a gut level, cyanotypes produce a result that is universal. “The color blue strikes some chord in us that goes beyond words,” said the San Francisco photography dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel. “It’s that simple.”
Mr. Marclay, the artist who gained a worldwide following for his 24-hour-long film montage “The Clock,” spent five years working with the medium, and his cyanotype “Unwound Cassette Tape” (2012) is featured in the Worcester show. His experiments largely took place in Tampa, Fla., because of his relationship with the graphics studio at the University of South Florida there. But the climate helped, since Mr. Marclay used the age-old method of exposing them in the sun.
For “Unwound Cassette Tape,” Mr. Marclay unspooled a tape on treated paper in stages. Parts of the image are darker, depending on how much light the tape was exposed to and how tightly it was pressed to the paper, yielding an array of hues in the final image. “I love the direct aspect of it,” Mr. Marclay said. “It’s a trace. And a cassette is already a trace.”
The inherent nostalgia in the blue tint of cyanotypes dovetails with Mr. Marclay’s longstanding interest in materials that are on the brink of extinction. “Cassettes are obsolete, captured by an obsolete photo technique,” he said. “Two dying technologies.”
Something about the monochromatic result appears to encourage conceptual thinking. “The simplicity of them means you give up control, but the limitations are interesting,” said the German-born artist Marco Breuer, who lives in the upstate New York town of Oxford and who has made hundreds of cyanotypes over the years, including an abstract-looking work in the Worcester show, “Untitled (E-33)” (2005).
Instead of exposing the paper right away, Mr. Breuer coated it again and again with the iron solution, so the emulsion would build up layers, creating a moody image.
As for Ms. Lopez — who has been taking photographs since she was 13 — the process was more literal. “Medical Conditions,” the work on view in the show, tackles her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease as well as her own tomboy past. The dress, one of 14 she made in the series, is covered with graphic X-rays, medical texts about dementia, and a quotation that a family member said to her: “You should help your mother more.”
Ms. Lopez treated the paper with two chemicals and then put her negative — in most cases, a simple piece of acetate with reversed text on it, printed out on a copy machine — under plexiglass. Then she exposed it in direct sun.
“I wanted to sew my troubles into a dress,” she said — but that required the right material. “I’m always exploring what to print on,” Ms. Lopez added. “My family always made tamales every Christmas.”
Then she started experimenting. “I printed on it, and it held,” she said. “I was shocked. A year later, I thought, Let’s see if this sews together. It held, and I was happy again.”
As for the seed of the whole idea, Ms. Lopez said it was a bolt of inspiration that might be familiar to other makers of cyanotypes: “It came to me out of the blue.”

No comments:

Post a Comment