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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Newhall

History of Photography: Science, Art, and Blueprints

Hello and welcome to a post about the History of Photography! I'm not sure if this will become a repeat occurence or not, but hey, I think the History of Photography is interesting! When I was in school studying photography, one of my classes was all about alternate development methods in photography. I'd learned about the development of modern 35mm film, now it was time to learn about other methods. One of my favorites of these was called the cyanotype.

What are cyanotypes? Cyanotypes are a specific type of photographic printing formulation. It uses a developmental process in which a print takes on a blue-ish shade.

The History of Photography is a history that's integrated with the History of Science as much as it is the History of Art. Photography is fundamentally connected to science as much as it's connected to art. The cyanotype is a perfect example of this link.

The cyanotype development method definitely changed the way people composed images. While it does focus on contrast and texture like with black and white film, it turns everything into a blue shade, instead of the spectrum of grey that most are used to!

History of the Cyanotype

The cyanotype is a perfect example of the impact of history on science. In 1842, Sir John Herschel discovered the cyanotype process in his research on the effects of light on iron compounds. The idea was that the cyanotype process would help reveal specific types of light that had been discovered by earlier scientists. In order to do this research, Herschel relied on the chemical process that had been invented by previous scientists, particularly Alfred Smee.

Herschel's process relied on painting paper with a photosensitive chemical. The chemical he created was composed with a mixture of Iron Tonic and Potassium Ferricyanide (along with a few other chemicals) to create a photosensitizer. The chemical was then painted on paper before being exposed to light. Once mixed together, painted, and exposed to light, it produced a particular blue shade on the print (depicted above). After the painted-on paper was exposed to light, it could simply be put in water to finish the process.* This was a significant change from the other, potentially more dangerous, processes.

This process was unusually easy when compared to similar processes at the time. This made it much more efficient to produce photos that could be put on paper and shared relatively easily. Most notably Anna Atkins and Anne Dixon used the cyanotype process to hand print several books on various plant specimens, all photographed using the cyanotype process. This made them, in short, the first photographic books. Better yet, the first science textbooks with photos!

Atkins and Dixon weren't the only people to put photographs on, at the time, unusual surfaces. Another person, John Mercer, put photographs onto textiles using the cyanotype process. Whats more, he even managed to figure out a way to change the tint from blue to other colors!

Despite the rather significant (and accidental) impact of his process, Herschel did not patent his process. Instead, another chemist published the process more prominently on his book describing various photographic processes including ferrotypes, daguerrotypes, and thermography. This manual, published in 1843, became extremely popular (for the time) and ended up being translated into German and Dutch about a year later.

After the book was published this new process became more public; particulary once it started being used by famous photographers like William Henry Fox Talbot and Henry Bosse. In fact, cyanotypes started being used commercially for technical purposes in 1872. Because of the accessiblity of the process, it could be used to create folk art, like early family portraits. Earlier processes could produce portraits (as many can find in history books), but the subjects would need to stay in frames for much longer. In the earliest days they had to be there for hours! That's probably why people don't look too happy.

The cyanotype process began to be marketed and used as a way of quickly reproducing images. In fact, it was so easy that it was used as a process for creating and reprinting images all the way until the 1940's. Because of how easy it was to reproduce images and diagrams among professionals architects would use it to print out plans for buildings. This is why architectural plans are called blueprints! Pretty cool huh?

I hope you enjoyed this post! See you next time!

*Herschel's process did have one small drawback though. His earliest version could only produce negatives. Much like the one depicted in the beginning of this article. He would later go on to successfully create a process that could be used to produce positive images. This process was later streamlined and improved by Henri Pellet.

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