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t r U E B l U E : C yA N ot y P E s , t H E i N D E x , A N D t r U t H F U l N E s s Kristina Wilson


mong the theory-laden buzz words that swirl through the discourse of photography, the semiotic term index has been central.1 this essay investigates how viewers make meaning out of cyanotype photographs and considers how the concept of the semiotic index may or may not be helpful. these insistently blue images—created when sensitized paper is placed in direct contact with either a photographic negative or an actual object—enhance our conventional understanding of how photographs work as signs. the American philosopher Charles sanders Peirce introduced the term index in the later nineteenth century as part of a much larger project about semiotics and the psychology of perception. At the core of his project were three types of signs that demanded different kinds of mental work from a viewer: the icon, the symbol, and the index.2 Peirce described an icon as a sign that points to its referent through visual similitude—that is, the sign looks like what it refers to. When looking at an icon, a viewer compares the sign and the referent and finds meaning in the likeness. Peirce defined a symbol as a sign that points to its referent through conventionally understood abstract forms. A symbol could be a word—for example, the letters c-a-t pointing to an idea of “catness” in the conventional use of the English language—or it could be a graphic rendering that relies on the viewer’s understanding of the cultural context. Finally, an index is a sign that is linked to its referent through a causal, physical relationship. if a passerby sees smoke coming out of the chimney of a house, for example, she applies causal reasoning and interprets it as a sign of a fire in the hearth; the smoke is physically caused by the referent, which is the fire in the hearth. As Michael leja and other scholars have noted, Peirce did not expect that any given sign could be reduced to a single one of these types (and, indeed, he explored highly elaborate variations on these types).3 rather, he argued that signs operate in multiple ways, in varied combinations of index, icon, and symbol; as a consequence, we, as readers of signs, use multiple strategies to make sense of them. Peirce proposed that photography could be understood, in part, as an indexical sign:4 the light waves bouncing off of an object impress themselves on a light-sensitive surface (the photographic negative), leaving an indelible record of the presence of those objects. For many, this relationship of physical causality between sign and referent connotes authenticity. the photograph seems to guarantee that those objects were present at one time before the camera just as the smoke rising from the


chimney seems to guarantee that there is a fire in the hearth below. French philosopher roland Barthes called this the photograph’s assertion of “that-has-been.”5 indeed, a photograph’s status as an index is the root of its claim to truthfulness. the index, as an evidentiary imprint of reality, is conventionally understood to embody the truth. this essay suggests that cyanotypes productively disrupt the common lines of association that link photography’s indexicality to reality and truthfulness. A few features of cyanotypes allow them to generate such disruptions. First, as this exhibition demonstrates, the cyanotype process has been used both to make a print from a photographic negative (which, because the negative is made with a camera, i will call “camera-based cyanotypes”) and to make contact prints of actual objects (“photogram cyanotypes”). Although we read all cyanotypes as a combination of icon, symbol, and index, when we focus on their indexicality, we realize that these two approaches record two different kinds of referents. A camerabased cyanotype such as Frederick Coulson’s portrait of his sister smoking (fig. 6) is an index of a photographic negative, which in turn can be understood as an index of the scene in front of the photographer’s camera on February 10, 1895. More specifically, this camera-based cyanotype is an index of both the female figure as well as the space in which she resides—the curved archway that frames her, the foliage, and the empty space between her and Coulson’s camera. the photogram cyanotype, alternatively, is an index of a physical object that lay in contact with the prepared paper, as in the example of Anna Atkins’s botanical specimen or Christian Marclay’s unwinding cassette tape. there are important differences between these two types of index. the camera-based cyanotype distorts size, giving us a record of the world at a dramatically reduced scale. the photogram cyanotype, in contrast, gives us a one-to-one record of an object. the camera-based cyanotype renders space and the relationships of objects in that space, thus allowing the viewer to construct a narrative about the scene. the photogram cyanotype, alternatively, records objects in the spatial context of the physical paper but is largely devoid of narrative context. these very differences—in scale, spatial context, and narrative potential—should give us pause: can both of these indexical signs embody truth? the second feature of cyanotypes that allows them to contravene standard models of photographic meaning making is their ineluctable blueness. in a camera-based cyanotype, everything in the world (or everything in the photographic negative) is turned into a shade of blue. the blueness is a

Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period  

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