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“Does your machine only take blue pictures—real photographers make people in black and white,” friends naïvely said to me when i first bought my ten dollar outfit. i paid no heed, and to day [sic], blue grass, not grown in Kentucky, blue cows, blue trees, and blue faces distinguish my work from that of real photographers. . . . [A]lthough other amateurs confess they use ferro-prussiate paper because, like patent medicine it is cheap, reliable, and within the reach of all, i make blues because i like them.7 Complaints skeel received about the unpleasant, artificial blueness of cyanotypes offer contemporary scholars meaningful evidence about turn-ofthe-century aesthetic tastes. Perhaps more important than the chiding she received from friends for printing “blue cows and blue trees” is her reference to “real photographers.” According to skeel, “real photographers” made black-and-white photographs. this being the case, cyanotypes fell outside the domain of “real photography.” skeel’s article not only indicates aesthetic preferences during the period, but for photography historians, the article triggers a more important question about the perceived legitimacy of the cyanotype as photograph. Another remarkable example promoting the merits of the cyanotype was the January 1900 edition of the Photo-Miniature, devoted entirely to “the ‘BluePrint’ and its variations.” Advertised as “a popular and fairly complete account of the iron printing processes . . . in handy form for the busy man,” the periodical offered an impassioned appraisal of cyanotypes as aesthetically beautiful in themselves, not merely identifying them as a process for the greenest of photographers. Further, in his embrace of the “blue print,” the handbook’s author, John A. tennant, voiced his (and this writer’s) bewilderment concerning the abject status of the cyanotype at the turn of the century: the indifference of the photographic world to the “blue print” is one of the seven wonders of that little world. it is one of the few things in photography about which even the amateur is not curious, which he accepts with unquestioning faith rather than as a subject for inquiry. if he is asked about it, he is apt to reply as the ancient mariner replied when questioned as to the precise meaning of the phrase “the trough of the sea.” “the trough of the sea? Why-it’s-the trough of the sea, to be sure.” to the photographer, amateur or professional, the blue print is a blue print and nothing more. if he has made blue prints, as most amateurs do in their salad days—using the commercially prepared paper, after the usual fashion of the novice—his impression is that the blue print is something cheap, and horribly blue. Why inquire further! it is used very largely by architects, draughtsmen, and

Fig. 3: Joseph H. greenwood, American, 1857-1927, snow Covered Pines (detail), about 1913, cyanotype, Worcester Art Museum, gift of the Estate of Mabel E. greenwood, 1965.850.1

engineers as an easy means of obtaining duplicate prints from their line drawings; but for photography? it is altogether too blue. on the one hand we have indifference, on the other hand prejudice.8 tennant wrote of an endemic, unspoken disrespect for the cyanotype. to this end, he emphasized that aversion toward the cyanotype extended beyond their appearance as “horribly blue.” rather, photographers from all walks of life avoided debate about the cyanotype. the blueness of cyanotypes may have been a common criticism voiced about the process, but tennant’s booklet implies that this knee-jerk response actually served as a diversion from another conversation that was not taking place. sidestepping debate about the cyanotype suggests a “cyanotype problem” more complex than simply a distaste for the color blue. A few fine artists chose the cyanotype for finished photographs over more fashionable processes like albumen or platinum. two such outliers are American printmaker and photographer Arthur Wesley Dow and civil engineer, cartographer, and photographer Henry Bosse. Dow’s Haystack variants, likely exposed to differing amounts of sunlight, illustrate the expressive effects of differing values of blue (figs. 4, 5). yet, it is important to note that Dow only printed photographs for personal enjoyment, unlike his woodcut impressions, explicitly made as fine art for public consumption. Bosse also capitalized on the blue shades of the cyanotype medium to great effect (see figs. 20, 21). However, his foremost responsibility lay in documenting the construction of bridges on the Mississippi, not developing photographs with an eye to the aesthetic. Without the need for a darkroom, cyanotype proved the most serviceable process for an engineer. While their deft handling of the cyanotype medium merits the attention of historians today, at the time of their production, Dow and Bosse’s affinity for the cyanotype remained mostly hidden. CyANotyPEs For tHE AMAtEUr PHotogrAPHEr Photography periodicals, whose bedrock readership consisted of amateur photography enthusiasts, must have been hard pressed to include the popular but disparaged iron-based processes. Avoiding insult or overly enthusiastic endorsement, discussion of the cyanotype in period amateur photography journals limited itself to instructions on how best to mix the iron-salt sensitizer (hotly debated), how to prevent the fogging of prints, and how long to expose the sensitized paper to sunlight. By restricting content almost exclusively to the level of instruction, with only modest aesthetic evaluation, these journals embraced cyanotypes as a kind of photographic exercise without endorsing them as a complete photographic process.

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Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period  

Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period Edited by Nancy Kathryn Burns, Assistant Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Kristina Wilson...

Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period  

Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period Edited by Nancy Kathryn Burns, Assistant Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Kristina Wilson...

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