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BlUE But what about the blue of the cyanotype? How does this affect our ability to read the work as index, icon, or symbol? Despite the popularity of cyanotypes for amateur photographers around the turn of the twentieth century, their blueness always seems to have been an issue. in 1891, a defender of the expressive possibilities of cyanotypes noted “the usual objection that such pictures do not look real or natural.”16 Whatever the reasons for the conventional acceptance of brown- or gray-scale photography in the nineteenth century—which were many and multiply determined—the cyanotype has apparently always reminded viewers of the difference between the representation and the presumed reality. As a British photographer admonished in 1898, “no one but a vandal would print a landscape in red, or in cyanotype.”17 A photographic image is, of course, always different from its subject: it is smaller than what it depicts, it is flat, and in some cases it is monochromatic. yet the rhetoric of the index and the often powerful iconic verisimilitude encourage us to ignore such differences. the cyanotype—both camera-based and photogram— is a blatant reminder that a photograph is, at heart, always capable of falsehood. A cyanotype such as Coulson’s image of his sister convinces us simultaneously that she must have looked that way at a moment in history and that she could never have looked that way. Just as she unveiled her hand only to veil her face, the image unveils its reality through utter clarity but then veils the truth in its utter blueness. We think we see a reality contained in the world of the image but understand that the image is not truthful. the link between reality and truth is severed. the blue of the cyanotype does something else, apart from its factual dishonesty. if an index is a record of past-ness—the assertion of “thathas-been” that endures in the present—the blue of a cyanotype disrupts that sense of the passage of time. the blueness has a quality of eternal presence: it was never part of the historical scene on the porch where Coulson’s sister stood with her cigarette, but it is always with us as we view the picture. the blue affects us on an emotional register that is distinct from what the image portrays. As viewers, our emotional responses to blue are both culturally conditioned and inescapably individual; we might associate blue with sky, water, and spiritual infinity (as yves Klein claimed), or we might associate blue with coolness, the “blues,” and depression. the color blue resonates emotionally and in the body: blue can be bracing, or it can be soothing.

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the strong affective valence of the deep Prussian blue may be why historical cyanotypes are greeted with nostalgia by some viewers. the color elicits a powerful emotional, embodied response in the present that makes us physically feel the loss of the past in an acute way. if the blue of a camera-based cyanotype is factually false—Dugdale’s model did not have blue skin the day he was photographed—it calls forth a very immediate, experientially real response in the viewer. the blue makes the image less truthful to the historical record but more vibrant, more evocative in present-moment reality.18 Again, truth and reality are severed. the blue of the photogram cyanotype similarly complicates the diagnosis of truth in a photographic product. Although a photogram is a one-to-one print, we do not assume it is a one-to-one translation of all available visual data of an object. We acknowledge its imperfection, its falseness, and the slippage between represented contours and imagined bodies. in the case of the photogram cyanotype, the deep field of artificial blue amplifies the slippage and incompleteness of the representation. one could say that through its blueness, the photogram cyanotype fully owns its ontological status as not-quite-truth. if blue has sometimes been associated with honesty and clarity, in the case of the cyanotype it would appear to be the opposite. the blue of the cyanotype draws attention to the falseness that is at the heart of all photography. At the same time, the cyanotype’s persistent difference from that which it represents forces us to pay attention to how we make meaning out of a photographic image. our minds play with the cyanotype’s iconicity, indexicality, symbolism, and the deep, affective power of its blue tone. individually, these elements may fail in truthfulness, but they open up that space of creative artifice in which works of art often reside.

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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