Sharing a skill: Cyanotypes

Sharing a skill: Cyanotypes

I was recently asked to volunteer some of my time for a very worthy cause. May 19, 20 and 21 marked the first ever Heather’s Camp to be held in Estes park Co.  from their website:

Heather’s Camp honors the memory of Heather Suzanne Francis Muller, her love of children and her desire to help those with special needs. It provides an opportunity for children with visual impairments to experience the joy of a camp program where they can acquire skills, gain confidence, find support and encouragement, and have fun.

As I mentioned in a previous post I was asked to speak and share some of the life experiences I have had with the campers. I was also asked to come up with an activity that I could share with the campers. Since my life revolves around photography, I thought that the activity should be something to do with photography, but of course the logistics of packing up and traveling with a darkroom was not feasible. Cyanotypes to the rescue!  Because I am lazy I will just copy and paste the Wikipedia definition because it seems generally accurate:

Cyanotype is a photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print. Engineers used the process well into the 20th century as a simple and low-cost process to produce copies of drawings, referred to as blueprints. The process uses two chemicals: ammonium iron(III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide. The English scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel discovered the procedure in 1842. Though the process was developed by Herschel, he considered it as mainly a means of reproducing notes and diagrams, as in blueprints.

Anna Atkins created a series of cyanotype limited-edition books that documented ferns and other plant life from her extensive seaweed collection, placing specimens directly onto coated paper and allowing the action of light to create a silhouette effect. By using this photogram process, Anna Atkins is sometimes considered the first female photographer.

The process is fairly simple, you mix the two chemicals in even proportions and then paint the resulting solution onto a surface that will stand up to a five minute rinse in tap water. I chose watercolor paper because it is readily available and affordable. The Cyanotype process also works very well on wood, stone or fabric. Once the solution is mixed it becomes light sensitive, so I prepared the cards the night before so we would not have to wait for drying time.  I brought some letters and shapes for the campers to design their prints and picked some local vegetation to use in the photograms. The Cyanotype process is very forgiving, and overexposure generally means blurring of the edges in the photogram. Estes Park is at an elevation of 7500 feet, so the exposure time was under 30 seconds.  The resulting prints are very contrasty and I figured that if I can see them, the campers would be able to as well.

Learning a skill (for me) is not complete until I share that skill with someone else. My feeling was that the Cyanotype process is very accessible and fun, and I included some tidbits about the history of the process during the introduction and the exposing of the prints. I love studying the history of photography and revel in any chance I get to share what I know. I love to hear the gasps from people when you drop that sheet into the water to rinse it and all the beautiful blue comes out. I think the councilors and assistants had a good time learning about the process too.

I urge anyone who is into photography to become an expert in something with the intent of sharing what you know. Learn the history of what you are interested in and throw in some interesting facts about the process or skill. It doesn’t have to be a physical skill like this, perhaps you are good at Lightroom or photoshop, share what you know with others rather than keeping it to yourself. The rewards you will receive will be well worth it.