A Brief History of Cyanotype, What is It?

A Brief History of Cyanotype, What is It?

In cyanotype a foreunner to photography, the appeal of vivid blue color combines with the satisfaction of creating charming and unconventional images. The process has changed little since its invention in 1842, but today’s practitioners are finding that it can be used in very modern ways.

A medium that has truely changed our perception of the world. Photography was invented only 175 years ago. Its basic principles were discovered by four different men. In 1816 French physicist Joseph Nicephore Niepce produced the first negative and, 11 years later, the first known photograph. Niepce worked with the painter Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre who, in 1839, revealed his method of making a direct positive image on a silver plate, known as daguerreotype.

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In England, scientist William Henry Fox Talbot was experimenting along similar lines, and had found a means of making endless positives from a paper negative, as well as permanently “fixing” images. His compatriot, the astronomer Sir John Herschel, was also an early experimenter with photography on glass.

All four men were vital to the establishment of photography as we know it, and in 1844 the first book illustrated with conventional photographs was published – Talbot’s “The Pencil of Nature”. But in this time of intense experimentation, various other photomechanical processes were discovered and explored, including one by Herschel himself, cyanotype.

The process is similar to the experiments of Thomas Wedgewood and Sir Humphry Davy who, early in the 19th century, placed objects on paper soaked in silver nitrate and exposed them to sunlight, creating effective – though impermenent – black and white images. Herschel’s method, however, employed light-sensitive iorn salts, also known as Prussian Blue (hence cyanotype, from “cyan”, the Greek word for blue), rather than silver nitrate. It is believed that Herschel had been looking for a means of accurately copying his notes, drawings and calculations, and the resulting images were, literally, “blueprints” of their subject matter.

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Herschel made his discovery public in 1842, in and 1843 – one year before Talbot’s book of photography – a book containing cyanotype images was published by Anna Atkins, a family friend of Herschel’s, who made nearly 400 prints of dried coastal algae. Quick, inexpensive and simple, cyanotype soon became a popular way of printing images on paper – for family portraits, artistic endeavours and in commerce (particularly for photographic proofs and for copying architectural and engineering drawings). As other photographic methods improved, however, cyanotype fell out of favour, though it was still widely used for architectural plans, mostly thanks to the large-scale production of blueprint paper from the 1880s onwards.

Today, photographers, artists and craftspeople are once again experimenting with labour intensive photographic processes, and have rediscovered the appeal and charm of cyanotype, producing images that can be displayed as artworks or transformed into beautiful home accessories or even clothing.

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One Comment
Malin Fabbri, posted this comment on Oct 16th, 2009

Nice work. I run a website on the subject, AlterantivePhotography.com.
If you want to learn more about the cyanotype process, we have also written a beginners’ guide (but there are some interesting bits for the more advanced printer too!), it’s called Blueprint to cyanotypes:

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