Before Photography: Cyanotype

At Cembra Art School we always try to introduce our students to old artistic practices that have been forgotten, or left behind, in the era of digitalization. We believe in the resurrection of pre-modern arts and we want to incorporate into our curriculum those creative fields that crystallize a spirit of the past. From the very beginning, we set out to make Cembra a space for dialogue and multi-disciplinarity, where we employ the very best practices from the vast world of art history.


Photography before photography


One of these practices, still full of creative potential today, is that of cyanotype. Cyanotype is a contact printing technique used by artists and architects for almost two centuries now. The process was invented by astronomer Sir John Herschel in 1842, while attempting to find an efficient and quick way to copy his notes. Sir Herschel used paper treated with iron salts, on top of which he placed his notes that were written on tracing paper, then exposed everything to the sun. Due to the transparency of the tracing paper under light exposure, the white portion of the paper turned an intense Prussian blue, while the text was printed in white, thus resulting  a negative copy of the original.

The one who brought cyanotype closer to photography was Anna Atkins. A year later after Sir John Herschel’s discovery, Anna Atkins created the first book of botanical illustrations, with over 400 cyanotype photograms. Anna Atkins applied pressed plants directly onto the contact paper, thus documenting a lot of botanical species before the invention of photo cameras.

The most common use of cyanotype, before the age of copy machines, was in engineering and architecture, hence the term blueprint.


Cyanotype today


With the emergence of other technologies and artistic mediums, the cyanotype evolved from its original purpose of image reproduction to a rather artistic one. The process has remained largely unchanged since its invention, but many artists have tried to explore beyond its basic methods, aiming at more refined or stylized results. For example, cyanotypes can be chromatically modified through bleaching and tinting with various substances (chlorine, sodium, tea, coffee, or other tannin-rich solutions).

From pieces of cloth to photo negatives, any material placed on the treated paper will leave a mark under light exposure. Moreover, the cyanotype printing technique can be used not only on paper, but on any material, if treated properly. There are artists who apply cyanotype prints on textiles, wood, ceramics, glass, cement, stone and many other mediums.

If you want to learn how to create cyanotypes, register for our upcoming workshop with Adriana Chiru. Adriana studied film and media production at Coventry University in England, and she currently works as a journalist, photographer and producer of documentaries and short films. Adriana’s portfolio describes an artist who works with many mediums and explores less conventional visual expressions, that give resonance to her artistic discourse.

This workshop is addressed to those who are passionate about visual arts, but also to those who want to give up the digital world for a day and understand the whole process of creating photograms. Although at first glance it may seem like a purely technical process, cyanotype offers many possibilities for stylization and can spectacularly interact with other media and artistic domains. But don’t take our word for it. Come and see for yourself!