17 April: Curate

Phoography, no it’s not a typo, it’s a thing. Well it is now….

On the English Wikipedia since January in fact, there were two articles; “Cyanotype” and “Cyanography” the latter started by an unnamed editor somewhere in Paris, based on a translation of a page “Cyanographie” in the French online encyclopaedia. 

Why two articles on what would seem to be the same thing? Well, just as there is now such a thing called Phoography; because I say so. What I’ve done there is to remove the ’t’ as it stands for ‘technology,’ and thus christen artistic use of photography as distinct from anything anyone has done with the medium up to now. There already is an art form —called ‘photography’ you say? Such a trifle doesn’t worry our French encyclopedia editor, who promulgates an extraordinary differentiation;

“In cyanography, the formula of the emulsion can be modified to achieve creative effects, it is recommended to use distilled water to maintain chemical stability. In order to make a cyanotype print, the emulsion is spread as a homogeneous coating, which serves as a photosensitive layer to transform a negative film into a positive print.

“Cyanography is different, the emulsion is considered a paint, its application can be irregular, concentrated or diluted, partially cover the support or be applied in several layers”

Really? The example provided with the article leads the curious, via its Wikimedia entry, to the Instagram account of Wolfgang Autenrieth, and even to the location south of Stuttgart where the image was made, and his website. The picture is labelled a cyanotype and nowhere at those sites does Autenrieth make any mention of ‘cyanography’.

While the author of ‘Cyanography’ attempts a distinction between the suffix “graphy” γράφω grapho: paint, draw, write – “writing”, “image”; and the suffix “type” in cyanotype (being from the Greek τύπος “túpos” imprint, mark) the distinction with any relevance to art is not made clear. It’s all semantics to cover up a skewed and limited history of the cyanotype in order to push their conviction that they are onto something new…and even such casuistic pettifogging is further obscured by a suggestion that Herschel ‘invented’ the cyanotype purely in order to make copies of his notes and diagrams;  merely as a form of photocopying.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1867) John Herschel. Albumen silver print from glass negative, 31.8 x 24.9 cm

An excellent article by Mike Ware, peerless in his authority on the medium, reveals how wrong that is. John Herschel‘s (1792–1871) purpose was to give visible form to a clever discovery in 1800 of light beyond the red end of the visible spectrum by his father William (1738–1822). To do so, son John sought compounds that would react to such light and discovered in the mixture of ammonium ferric citrate in a 20% aqueous solution, with 16% of the potassium ferricyanide, a means of detecting rays at the ultraviolet end. John Herschel never patented his discoveries or inventions in photography including his invaluable finding that sodium thiosulfate is a solvent of silver halides in 1819, so that “hyposulphite of soda” (“hypo”) could be used as a photographic fixer, which he determined experimentally in early 1839. In fact, the commercialisation of the cyanotype as a means of making copies came only in 1872, the year after Herschel’s death, when Marion and Company of Paris, marketed “Ferro-prussiate” blueprint papers for reprography of plans and technical drawings, an application that continued until at least the 1940s.

There are few means of making images from the effect of light that are so simple and malleable as the cyanotype, nor as beautiful when handled by expert photographers who understand the potential of its unfathomable blue depths. As German photographer Thomas Kellner notes; “…blue has a different depth in the background than a black print. Blue is still infinite, whereas black usually has the character of ending.” Furthermore, the range of papers, let alone other surfaces on which it may be coated, provides a palette much more expansive that the range of manufactured silver gelatin papers.

Anna Atkins (1843) Dictyota dichotoma in the young slate, & in fruit. Cyanotype photogram of a species of brown algae with title in pen on tissue paper printed simultaneously.

It has been used to make art since 1843 when Anna Atkins, a friend of the Herschels and in the circle of Henry Fox Talbot, first used it. It was deemed socially fit that educated women of the period collected botanical specimens, though they could not enter the ‘hard sciences’ or the Royal Society (until 1945). Atkins’ samples had the distinction of being preserved from the ravages of decay as images in the new photographic medium in albums, and one, her self-published limited edition of photograms was issued in the first instalment of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in October 1843 (‘photograph’ being the term coined by Herschel). Her project was to illustrate William Henry Harvey’s A Manual of British Algae which had been published in 1841. Her photographically illuminated book predates by eight months Talbot’s own, illustrated with 24 calotype prints; the first to be commercially published.

Henry Fox Talbot (1844) Scene in a Library, the same image as plate VIII in The Pencil of Nature, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005.100.172; Schaaf 18

Most often, the cyanotype has been used for making proofs; what could be more convenient, in the age before digital imaging, before Polaroid, or even now? You can see your latest processed films as positive images after quickly preparing a cyanotype in ordinary indoors illumination, then expose your negatives on it to the sun or UV source in a printing frame, inspecting it by eye as it develops, then rinsing the print in running water. The result will give a good image from almost any negative, such is the tonal range.

In one instance cyanotype proofs were used in advancing the development of television. The French engineer René Barthélemy who at 22 years old was a radio-telegraphist at the Tour Eiffel achieved the radio transmission of still images from the tower in January 1930. Scans of the images, including this woman’s portrait,  were received at a resolution of 42 lines on a 132 mm wide roll of cyanotype paper. 

Rene Barthelemy. Reception of an image sent from the Poste du Petit-Parisien transmitter on top of the Eiffel Tower February , 1930-Enhanced
Rene Barthelemy (1930) Reception of an image sent from the Poste du Petit-Parisien transmitter on top of the Eiffel Tower February, 1930

Merging the two Wikipedia entries was an opportunity to expand on its practitioners and the artistic potential of the medium which was more enthusiastically embraced by those in France, like Henri Le Secq, than in England where Henry Emerson scoffed at its use.

Henri Le Secq (between 1848 and 1860) Tranche de potiron, pot à lait, assiette et oeufs. Cyanotype.

French-American photographer, writer and critic Paul Haviland was closely involved with Steiglitz’ Photo-Secession and shared model Florence Peterson’s pre-Raphaelite looks with Clarence White. He wrote with Marius de Zayas A Study of the Modern Evolution of Plastic Expression prompted by reactions to exhibitions of the expressionist watercolours of John Marin, illustrating the book with examples by Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and Picabia to support his conviction that the modern artist “lets the outer world come to him and finds his pleasure in analyzing the reaction of the world on his personality.”

In 1916 he returned to the family business in Limoges and remained in France, marrying Suzanne Lalique, daughter of famous art nouveau glass designer René Lalique. It is an amalgamation of Marin’s painting, art nouveau, Japonisme, and Symbolism that infuses his compositions, the modulated focus of which breaks through the flat picture planes of such art. “Form is limited space,” he wrote, but eloquently emphasises depth in his imagery; no need for Gustav Klimt’s gold leaf when Haviland can evoke such a halo…

Paul Haviland (1909-10) Florence Peterson en kimono portant des fleurs, cyanotype,  25.4 x 20.3 cm. Musée d’Orsay.
Luigi Veronesi (1938) Fotogramma, cyanotype photogram 17 x 21 cm

Cyanotypes reappear intermittently through the modernist period before proliferating as photographers returned to its ‘alternative’ forms in the 1960s and 1970s, just as colour became more available, and increasingly more find the ‘hand-made’ forms of the medium attractive.

Does the argument between cyano-type and cyano-graph come down to the difference between the multiple image and the one-off; a sense that the former is merely a ‘mechanical copy’ and the latter a unique work? Even where Francesca Woodman, a year before her premature death, uses the commercial descendent of the cyanotype, the diazo (blueprint), her hand is at work…

Francesca Woodman (March 12, 1980) Portico with Caryatids of Delphi, diazotype 60.96 x 45.72 cm

Our house abounds in cyanotypes. Most are unique, made with no intention of making multiple copies, and the majority are on supports, such as eggshell, ceramic, stone or bone, that themselves are unique objects to which the solution has been applied sometimes by stamping it on with objects. They’re all still resolutely cyanotypes. My partner Lorena awaits the upcoming publication of the picture-book Satin by Sophie Masson, which she has illustrated with digital images taken from cyanotypes.

Lorena Carrington (2022) cyanotype photogram of fern leaf on eggshell

My argument with ‘cyanography’ is not frivolously lexical, but is a protest against the follies of separating technique or process from art and of inventing a new term to make such a distinction, which rather reminds me of the Curate’s Egg. “Phoography”, you may be pleased to know, is an unnecessary reinvention of photography, just as the term cyanotype, which is a mere 3 years younger, covers all uses of the medium.

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