Cyanotypes: Images Out of the Blue
Cyanotypes are almost as old as photography itself, but until now their use has been industrial, most often being seen in the form of architectural blueprints. Now they are starting to gain respect as an art form, as curators, contemporary artists and art collectors explore their history and potential.
Discovered in 1842 by Sir John Herschel, who also gave the process its name, the cyanotype might be the most widely used alternative photographic form in existence. Cyanotypes are cheap and easy to make; all the recipe calls for is paper, a mix of two chemicals (ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide), water, sunlight and time. That’s it. No darkroom or costly, cutting-edge professional camera equipment required – in fact, no camera is required at all. The odds are good that you, the reader, made a cyanotype in a school art class by placing an object on chemically-treated paper, exposing it to light, and waiting. Once you were happy with what you saw, you washed the image to “fix” it, allowed it to dry, and admired the result. Making a cyanotype might actually have been your first experience as a photographer, long before you received your first camera or smartphone.
Its very simplicity and ease of use doomed the cyanotype’s artistic reputation for centuries. The gatekeepers of fine art unsurprisingly looked down their collective noses on a process that almost anyone could master. Another strike against it was the hue imparted by its chemicals – the “cyan” of its name. Photography itself struggled to be taken seriously as a fine-art medium for more than a century. More so, a form of it that portrayed the world in a deep, strong, almost aggressive blue, rather than a sober black-and-white or civilized sepia tone, found few advocates. The 19th century writer P.H. Emerson went so far as to say, “No one but a vandal would print a landscape in red, or in cyanotype.”
What changed? According to Nancy Burns, Stoddard associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) in Worcester, Massachusetts, cyanotypes won their chance to shine after technological changes prompted people to think anew. “When digital photography came around, the question ‘What is a photograph?’ was staring everyone right in the face,” she said. “As a result, some photographers embraced a new ‘post-film’ photographic landscape while others began to revisit various ‘extinct’ photographic processes like cyanotype, tintype, platinum, and daguerreotype. I think that’s the biggest reason you see a resurgence in the medium at the turn of the 20th to 21st century.”
Deborah Rogel, Director of the Photographs & Photobooks departments at Swann Auction Galleries, has witnessed the same phenomenon. “The so-called alternative processes [including cyanotypes] have become very interesting to artists and collectors,” she said. “For me what this really comes down to is an interest in the process itself from both the collector and the maker – the ways in which photographic images can be translated to and produced on paper. And, of course, cyanotypes are quite beautiful, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before collectors began to invest more interest in them.”
The best-known contemporary cyanotypes are probably those of Christian Marclay, the American-Swiss artist who explores aspects of sound and audio, and to a lesser extent, obsolete technology. Around 2008, he created a series of cyanotypes featuring cassette tapes, and he published a book of his cyanotypes in 2011. A 2008 cyanotype by Marclay showing a single clear cassette tape spooling ribbons of white onto a cobalt background sold for $5,250 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020.
Another contemporary artist who has embraced the cyanotype is John Dugdale, an LGBT artist who in the early 1990s lost most of his vision to complications of AIDS. It has not stopped him from creating riveting works of art in cyanotype and other photographic processes. In August 2020, Swann offered as one lot a pair of framed Dugdale cyanotypes, Jocob’s Ladder and Cresent Moon, both dating to the 1990s. They realized $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium. “Dugdale’s power as a photographer is illustrated beautifully in this pair of cyanotypes,” said Rogel. “He uses the blue tones to render both atmosphere and mood, and draws out an unparalleled level of detail and lush dimensionality within what is essentially a range of light to very dark blue. His work is timeless and beautiful, and in this way the cyanotype is the perfect format for his work.”
When contemporary artists shine a light on an overlooked art medium, it stokes interest in the works of those who came before. Almost a decade after Marclay released his cyanotypes, Burns co-curated the first dedicated museum show about the medium held in the United States, and possibly the first such show mounted anywhere on the planet. She and her colleague Kristina Wilson, a professor of art history at Clark University, which is also in Worcester, Massachusetts, knew that WAM had an intriguing collection of cyanotypes and thought it could support a museum exhibition. But as the two dug deeper, they made a startling discovery.
“Kristina and I realized that we couldn’t find a single exhibition catalog that focused on cyanotypes aside from the work of Anna Atkins. We had stumbled into a genuinely new topic for scholarly exploration and museum display,” she said. “There was a bit of excitement and anxiety that came along with that realization, too. I remember thinking, ‘Is it even possible to do this in seven-ish months? Should we put this on a backburner for another time?’ But we were so enamored with the idea at that point, Kristina and I were going to figure out a way to make it work.” Their efforts culminated in the 2016 show Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period, which received much media coverage and introduced thousands of museum-goers and countless online visitors to the medium.
Another possible reason behind the rising interest in cyanotypes is several early practitioners were women, and greater attention is being paid to women artists. Anna Atkins, who Butler mentions above, is credited with creating the very first photo book, in 1843, a year before the photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot published The Pencil of Nature. She released the first volume of her work British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in 1843 and released the other two volumes during the decade that followed, giving one of the dozen-or-so sets to Talbot. While Atkins’ rare book has yet to appear in a May 2016 sale conducted on LiveAuctioneers, a circa-1852 cyanotype by her, dubbed Peiris Grandifolia, achieved $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium.
In June 2020, Swann Auction Galleries handled a set of cyanotypes made circa 1900-1906 by Bertha Jaques, another lauded cyanotypist. As with the Atkins cyanotype sold in 2016, the set of nine images were photograms – a form of cyanotype created by laying an object, such as a flower or a branch, directly onto chemically-treated paper and then bathing everything in light. The lot notes described the set as “rich” phonograms. Rogel explains the term applied because “the images were quite a vivid blue, and many with crisp delineation of the forms throughout. They are just stunning – Jaques absolutely perfected the process … In her imagery, the specifics of the specimen are identifiable, but rendered in a way that heightens and accentuates the strangeness and beauty of their form.”
Another notable, but not prolific, source of cyanotypes is Edward S. Curtis, creator of the epic early 20th century ethnographic work The North American Indian. Curtis probably did not invent the notion of using cyanotypes to check the quality of his photographs, but he was certainly motivated to do so. J.P. Morgan gave him $75,000 to pursue the project, which forced Curtis to travel to some of the most remote locations in the country to obtain the 40,000 to 50,000 negatives he is estimated to have produced. He absolutely needed a way to confirm on the spot, hundreds or thousands of miles from his darkroom, that what he shot that day was good or needed a retake. Cyanotypes let him do that.
“They were his version of a Polaroid – a good way to proof something, to see a negative of what he shot in the field,” said Peter Bernardy, studio manager of Christopher Cardozo Fine Art in St. Paul, Minnesota, which was founded by a leading collector of Curtis images. He explained that Curtis “…would tear a sheet from notebook, coat it with emulsion, and let dry maybe 30 minutes to an hour to create a piece of photographic paper. Then he would take a negative he created that day, place it in contact with sheet of paper, expose it to the sun, and develop it in water. It’s very easy to do anywhere, really. If he saw a problem [in the cyanotype,] he might try to recapture the image. The cyanotype was the first step in the editing process, a very early step.”
Curtis cyanotypes are not just beautiful; they also give a glimpse of the artist at work. “Cyanotypes are the closest you’ll ever get to Curtis’s hand in the moment. This is what he used if he wanted an immediate feel for what he just photographed,” said Gillian Blitch, President and CEO of Santa Fe Art Auction, which in late June 2021 conducted an auction of Cardozo’s collection of Curtis photographs.
More than a dozen Curtis cyanotypes were in that sale, including a 1910 example titled With Her Proudly Decked Horse – Cayuse, which realized $3,600. “I love that piece, it’s wonderful. The expression on her face, the dignity and the elegance of that piece are striking. It’s got an amazing charisma to it,” Blitch said, adding, “You are looking at it as Curtis looked at it in the field, in a tent in the middle of a location. It’s quite mesmerizing.”
Given that Curtis regarded cyanotypes merely as tools to check his work, it’s amazing that any of them survive. Bernardy says that Curtis routinely shared them with the sitters, and whatever he didn’t give away made it back to his studio, where he would file it. The few that manage to reach the market are prizes indeed.
With cyanotypes in the first blush of being collected as cyanotypes rather than as blueprints of homes by Frank Lloyd Wright or examples of early photography, the field is open for collectors seeking an exciting new niche. “I am hopeful that there is a lot of potential for growth in this area of collecting,” Rogel said. “Broadening the conversations around inclusivity of maker, format, and purpose under the very broad photographic umbrella is certainly a goal of mine, both as a specialist and an advocate for the medium. The more collectors are able to see and appreciate the numerous ways in which photography is used and can be understood, the more growth potential there is. Cyanotypes are often at an accessible price point for new collectors, and as I’ve mentioned, their unusual and appealing visual features make them a great entry point.”
“I feel like cyanotypes are a bug that you catch and never shake,” Butler said. “I’ll be the first to say that I have a very soft spot in my heart for them. I find the same is true with collectors. At least in my experience, people who collect cyanotypes really love them for their jewel-like sapphire glow and their peculiarity. Have I seen an uptick in collecting them? Yes. I think that can certainly be attributed to the fact that they are getting greater exposure and as a result more artists are trying their hand at the medium.”