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Am I Blue:  The Cyanotype 

by Richard T. Rosenthal

 The Cyanotype, or blue print process, was invented by Sir John Herschel in 1842, thus making it one of the very earliest photographic processes. It was also relatively quick and simple and Herschel used it to make copies of notes. The best known early proponent of cyanotypes was Anna Atkins who did a series of leaf prints and also published books utilizing the process. However, it was relatively little used and early examples of cyanotypes are rare.

 Anna Atkins.  Asplenium Pramorsum (Jamaica)

In the 1880’s, blue print paper began to be manufactured on a large scale. Engineers and architects started to use it to make copies of architectural drawings and mechanical plans. This wide spread availability led to the revival of the Cyanotype as a photographic process.

Advertisement  from The American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac for 1900

Professional photographers utilized it to make work-or- proof prints because it was so easy to use and because cyanotypes are very stable and long lasting images. Most professionals, however, heeded Peter Henry Emerson’s dictate in Naturalistic Photography: "…no one but a vandal would print a landscape in red, or in Cyanotype" (Crawford, p.68).  They did not do any serious work using the process. 

Anonymous.  Hannewell Gardens, Wellesley

 However, Henri Le Secq, Thomas Anschutz, Edward S. Curtis, Thomas Eakins, Charles F. Lummis, and A. L. Coburn were all known to have made cyanotypes. While the bright Prussian blue color may have proved a drawback to some photographers, the simplicity and cheapness of the process made it  popular with others. Thus, for example, it was used during the Spanish American War because of the difficulties of using other photographic processes in the field. 

Anonymous.  Gunboats on the Upper Rio Grande River

Another example of its utility can be seen in the cyanotypes of the building of the Boston Elevated Railway Line. The photographer wanted to record the progress of the construction and used the process because it was quick, cheap, and easy.

Anonymous.  Lincoln Wharf Pile Driver, Boston

At this time also, many amateurs became  enamored with the Cyanotype process and for a while it became quite popular. It is not uncommon to find blue print photographs in amateur photography albums of the day.  It is also interesting to note that during this revival photographers followed directly in Anna Atkins footsteps and made Cyanotype leaf prints.

Florence F. Fishover.  Pink Clover

While Emerson did deride the use of cyanotypes, they seem to have retained a certain lasting charm and beauty which has weathered the test of time.

Anonymous.  Family On The Porch

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