Have you ever heard of Anna Atkins? No? Neither had I until last summer, when I took the small Mitchells to a cyanotype photography workshop at Cambridge Botanic Gardens. Cyanotype was one of the earliest forms of photography and botanist Anna Atkins used it to make exquisite monochrome images of British ferns and seaweeds. Not only that, she is credited with publishing the very first book of photographs – a compendium of British seaweed cyanotype images. I took one look at her intricate indigo botanical silhouettes and was smitten…
Anna learned the light-sensitive cyanotype/Prussian blue/blueprint photography technique from Sir John Herschel, a family friend, who had invented the process in 1842. She became an expert in it and used it to extend her botanical studies. Anna was an accomplished scientist and ground-breaking photographer and excelled in a male dominated field. I’m filled with admiration for her, not least because she achieved all this whilst sporting a gargantuan crinoline-what a pain this must have been as she clambered over rocks to collect her seaweed specimens.
Cyanotype can capture the tiniest detail of leaves and this fact along with the colour of cyanotype – that beautiful, vivid deep Prussian blue that echoes indigo- and Anna’s wreath-like studies of ferns that made me determined to make some images of my own. Ready-made cyanotype paper is available online, circumventing the need for making your own rather alarming-sounding ferrocyanide solutions and impregnating paper with them in a dark room. Whilst the girls were building a den this afternoon I decided to experiment and it was so quick and simple that I confess I’m hooked.
I chose fennel, cow parsley, fever few and a beautiful little alpine plant with tiny pinnate leaves to make my pictures. Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is such a favourite of mine that I had to use it to make a cyanotype study.
You will need
Smallish flat items with interesting shapes e.g.. leaves, fine crochet etc
A cheap clip frame (mine is A4 and cost £2.59)
Dry marker pen that writes on windows/mirrors (optional)
Windolene (or homemade equivalent)
Water in a shallow tray/dish
…you’ll also need a sunny day, although on dull days the process will still work, it just takes longer.
To make cyanotype images…
- Close your curtains to minimise exposure of your paper whilst you set up your photograph
- Remove the clips from clipframe and if you’d like to label your plants or add text to your image use the dry marker to write on the glass*. Allow to dry.
- Turn the glass over and copy what you’ve written on the other side of the glass – this will prevent a fuzzy silhouette of the writing forming due to the thickness of the glass. Correct any mistakes or smudges with Windolene/vinegar
- Before removing the cyanotype paper from its packaging experiment with your leaf arrangement on your table top- I twiddled around for a while before I was happy with the design. Check the proportions of your arrangement fit with your text at this point
- Remove a piece of cyanotype paper from its packet and place on the hardboard of the clip frame.
- Arrange your leaves on the paper. I got a little flustered and flappy at this point but until the paper gets into bright sunshine the exposure won’t really begin in earnest
- Place the glass over the paper so you can see where any writing might lie in the image and carefully move the paper so it is central and you’re happy with the arrangement
- Lower the glass onto the hardboard base and reapply the clips to the frame
- Place outside in bright sunshine for 10 minutes or on a dull day extend this to around 15-20 minutes
- Bring inside, remove the clips from the frame and wash the paper in your tray/dish of water. Change the water once or twice until no more pigment comes out of the paper
- Hang up to dry and admire your 19th century handiwork
- Bask in the approval of a nineteenth century scientific bonneted heroine of mine (from beyond the grave)*
I uttered one of those loud ‘oooooh’s when I washed my first cyanotype image – the Prussian blue dye suddenly lifts out of the paper leaving the silhouette of whichever leaves you placed on it. It’s MAGICAL I tell you. I will be making more of these….
*Note: many dry markers have a thick tip, making the scale of the writing rather large in comparison to delicate leaves etc. so look for a fine tipped pen is possible and practice writing on the glass with the very end to make fine lettering. You can rub out your practice with the windolene.
If you have a go I’d LOVE to hear about it/see pictures. Have you ever tried alternative photography techniques or used antique equipment? Do let me know in the comments..