by Paul Hetherington
Cyanotypes are probably the earliest form of photography.
They are created by combining two simple chemical solutions, which, when coated on paper, dried and exposed to light rich in ultraviolet, undergo a reaction which produces a deeply saturated blue pigment, sometimes known as “Prussian blue”.
If something is placed between the light source (usually the sun) and the paper, such as a photographic negative or a plant specimen, a mask is formed and an image is created on the paper. After sufficient exposure has been given, the paper is washed in water and the blue and white image is revealed. As it dries, the image darkens and increases in contrast.
Cyanotypes of the kind created and presented here cannot be made directly with a camera, but depend entirely on making a print by close contact between subject and the light-sensitive paper. Images so created by the use of objects (such as leaves and stems of plants) are often known as “photograms”.
Invented in about 1842 by Sir John Herschel (astronomer and generally brilliant scientist), the cyanotype process was originally intended by him to be used for copying drawings and notes, but his friends and acquaintances - notably Anna Atkins and William Fox-Talbot, but there were others - experimented further with the process as a way to capture images of the world about them.
Anna Atkins, born in 1799, had a particular interest in botany, and created a number of books of British flora in the 1840s and 1850s using cyanotypes. She is regarded in many photographic histories as the first female photographer, and even perhaps the first “scientific photographer”.
Her books and prints survive in a number of collections and museums, and though increasingly fragile (most are at least 150 years old), they retain their intrinsic beauty and delicacy of detail. An example can be seen below.
A process that proceeds by light, and particularly by the agency of ultraviolet light, seemed very appropriate as a very direct visual complement for Maura Hazelden's explorations of plants, naming and identity, and it seems impossible to ignore the poignant echo of Anna Atkins' work when considering it.