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Cyanotypes: A vintage technique with new takers

  • Artists, designers and photographers across India are using the 19th century printing process in unique ways
  • If photography means drawing with light, cyanotypes may be the closest you can get to that definition

Himanshi Parmar’s print of her hands with gold embellishments

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Ever since Himanshi Parmar first encountered cyanotype prints at an exhibition in Mumbai four years ago, the 25-year-old visual designer has been intrigued by the process. She signed up for a cyanotype printing workshop in December in Pune, where she is based, only to realize that cyanotypes are about “a great understanding of the unknown”.

Parmar may be on to something. A cyanotype is an alternative printing process, often referred to as a camera-less technique of making images. It has been garnering a lot of interest in India among artists, illustrators, product designers, and even children. Parmar, who has made 20 cyanotypes since the workshop, believes that if there is a summer project you want to get going this year, cyanotypes could be it. In Mumbai, for instance, the Children’s Museum hosted a cyanotype workshop for the first time on 14 May, calling it “Printing with Sunlight”.

The technique itself was invented in 1842 by English astronomer and experimental photographer John Herschel. Among his many achievements, Herschel named some moons of Saturn and Uranus, and also translated Homer’s Iliad, but the invention of the cyanotype was far humbler in comparison. He used it to make copies of his voluminous notes.

Herschel’s cyanotypes are what we call blueprints, still widely used for architectural plans. In fact, Delhi-based photographer Randhir Singh and artist Seher Shah collaborated on Studies In Form (2017), which, as the title suggests, takes a closer look at structures such as Akbar Bhawan (the office of the external affairs ministry) and London’s Barbican Centre. The series was created using cyanotype printing, which the collaborators chose for “its ability to straddle the worlds of photography, architecture, drawing and printmaking”, according to their artist statement.

Sheets coated with chemicals are exposed to sunlight
Sheets coated with chemicals are exposed to sunlight

The more artistic destiny of cyanotypes was charted by Anna Atkins, credited as the first woman photographer (photographer Dayanita Singh calls her “The Mother of Photography”). Acquainted with Herschel, she made illustrations of algae, adding an artistic rather than practical dimension to the process. Her prints show ethereal whitish algae floating on a deep blue background. Her photographic illustrations were the first of their kind, titled Photographs Of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843)—part of both scientific history and the history of photography. Her pioneering work was shown late last year at the New York Public Library, marking 175 years since she made her creative cyanotypes.

Herschel’s technique, which is still largely followed, is to treat paper with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, and then expose it to sunlight. When finally washed with water, shades of Prussian blue emerge. Objects placed on the sheet block the chemicals from reacting with sunlight, thus forming patterns and shapes, almost like shadows. Prepping sheets of paper with the chemicals needs to be done in a darkroom, but the actual exposure takes only 8-15 minutes.

Cyanotype prints of fern fronds by Tarini Kumari
Cyanotype prints of fern fronds by Tarini Kumari

It’s a safe process but Jodhpur-based Tarini Kumari advocates the use of gloves if you are working with large batches. Kumari runs The Cobalt Company, which makes “wearable botanical art and photographs”, evoking Jodhpur’s azure architecture. Kumari uses palm fronds and gulmohar leaves to make botanical prints. “It has become my way of learning more about trees,” she says. Flowers such as frangipani, when used in cyanotypes, react with the chemicals, leaving behind tinges of purple on the blue, Kumari discovered.

She set up The Cobalt Company after she was drawn to cyanotypes while studying analogue photography at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, US. The idea of using the sun to develop images struck her as unique. “Cyanotypes have the effect of watercolours and people often mistake my products to be dyed in indigo,” says Kumari, who has conducted workshops in Goa, Mumbai and Jaipur. “I like how you can tweak every step of the process,” she says. The Cobalt Company makes scarves, photographs and pocket squares with cyanotypes, and every time Kumari makes one, she finds the outcome “surprising”.

Cyanotype prints marine life forms by Tarini Kumari
Cyanotype prints marine life forms by Tarini Kumari

If photography means drawing with light, cyanotypes may be the closest you can get to that definition. The greater the exposure to sunlight, the bluer the colour. Cyanotypes have an inherent elegance produced by the gradients of blue; executed well, they can even be termed poetic. Bangladeshi artist Munem Wasif, for his debut solo exhibition Jomin O Joban—A Tale Of The Land (2017) at Project 88 in Mumbai, presented a series of cyanotype prints, meant to be seen as an archive, of dripping seeds, specifically varieties of rice called Aman, Aus and Boro. Seeds Shall Set Us Free alluded to the man-made Bengal famine of 1943-44, the seeds’ connection to environmental health and indigenous knowledge as well as Nabanna, the Bengali harvest festival.

The exhibition note read: “Cyanotype is a nearly obsolete printing technique with a vernacular quality and that adds a blue subliminal tone in darkroom processing. It is a fragile process where the artist often loses control and each print becomes unique with the accidental presence of dust, scratches and tonal casts.”

Cyanotype prints of Jaisalmer Fort by Tarini Kumari
Cyanotype prints of Jaisalmer Fort by Tarini Kumari

Making a cyanotype is rather simple, says artist Ria Rajan. Pune-based Rajan, 33, first heard of cyanotypes while studying textile design at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru. “Cyanotypes vary a lot according to the amount and kind of light they are exposed to. The sunlight in Himachal Pradesh, for instance, will produce a different print from the ones we make in the cities,” says Rajan, who has used the technique to design wedding invitations too.

Rajan has conducted two workshops so far in Pune; Parmar took part in one of them. The workshops were attended by about 30 people, many of whom weren’t from art or design backgrounds. Rajan has seen participants bring along a range of materials to make patterns with as well as canvases to make the prints on. Although some use objects such as lace to make latticed prints, Rajan has seen participants favour natural organic forms, such as leaves and flowers.

A cyanotype printing workshop in Pune conducted by Ria Rajan
A cyanotype printing workshop in Pune conducted by Ria Rajan

Parmar has experimented with bougainvillea, where the translucent flowers leave behind wispy prints. But her personal favourites are her own hands. She presses her palms down on the sheet of paper, staying still for roughly 10 minutes under a hot sun, so that the print is sharp. Meditative is how she describes it.

Cyanotypes have taught her the art of letting go, she adds, “and of exposing your sheet under sunlight and trusting the sun”.

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