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Cyanotypes for the Modern Art Photographer

Cyanotypes (also known as blueprints or sun prints) are a familiar antique process to any photographer who went through art school to learn their craft. Many people were exposed to the process in their kindergarten years, placing rocks and leaves and other natural objects on top of the chemically pre-coated paper and leaving it out in the sun for a few minutes, then being amazed as they wash them off in plain water to reveal a solid blue where the sun struck the paper, white where the sun was blocked by the objects.

I’ve done cyanotypes off and on throughout my 20 years of photography, coating my own paper with Photographer’s Formulary chemistry and a simple foam brush to get a unique hand-brushed look to each image. I initially worked with objects on top of the paper, Man Ray-style, then made cyanotypes with 4×5 negatives shot with a Speed Graphic press camera from the 1940s. I did experiments with making digital negatives using images printed on transparency paper at the local Fed Ex self-printing shop- until it became increasingly difficult to make these negatives because the decline in the use of overhead projectors meant the decline of transparency paper as a staple office product.

My latest method for making negatives for my cyanotypes still involves the copy shop, but it’s better and cheaper than any of the previous methods.

Step 1: open images in Photoshop, making them black and white in whatever fashion you choose, and select “Image-Invert” to get them as negatives.

Step 2: Save as jpg, then…

Step 3: …get them to your local Xerox machine or laser printer via USB stick or email.

Step 4: Once you have your paper negatives, stick either clear packing tape or clear contact paper (the same material used in cupboards and found in the kitchen cabinet area of your local Wal-Mart) on the image side of your paper.

Step 5: Use warm water and a sponge to wipe away the blank (non-tape covered, non-contact paper covered) side of your paper. Pressure and water will leave you with a large-ish negative that, once dried, will be suitable for a cyanotype print.

There are a few additional details to cover, of course, though they are typically dependant on the kind of images you use and how you shoot. When making your own negatives, you’ll have to fiddle around with the of brightness and contrast you need in your negatives to get a satisfying cyanotype print, and when you make your prints you’ll have to find the right kind of paper to coat- I usually go for a cotton rag paper or a thick Bristol-type of paper.

As an artist who leans towards deliberately messing up my work with creative damage, I’ve found this process works particularly well with nude images and headshots because I like to have them obscured by scratches, or utilizing multiple tape negatives to cut and collage some freakish new Frankensteined image that suits my aesthetic taste.

I’ve seen other photographers fall back in love with an art form that has its origins circa 1840, if only because it’s a fresh take on old images. I have found a number of photos that felt too plain and boring, or too weird and poorly composed, that were totally elevated by being translated into the tape negative/ cyanotype format. Even if someone is not into this particular format or process, I want to encourage any photographers out there: don’t give up on your images. Don’t throw away the unused shots from a shoot. There’s always alternate methods, alternate mixes that can be culled from work, and there’s always some potential beyond the straight digital image.

David Miller

David Miller of Primordial Creative studio was born in 1977 in Omaha, NE. He graduated with his BFA in Photography from Arizona State University in 2006, creating portrait series that reflected both the hyperkinetic films, games and comics of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as more humanist documentary work with Indigenous communities in America and Australia. After ASU he became a teaching artist as well as exhibing around the Southwest/ West Coast and been published in numerous magazines such as Orion, View Camera, B+W/ Color, and others. In 2014 he was named as one of the top 100 Creatives of Arizona by New Times Magazine. He currently lives in Chandler with wife Vesna and 2 children, Patrick and Magdalena.

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