Anna Atkins was an english botanist and photographer. Her father was a scientist, and so when Sir John Herschel, a friend of the family, invented the cyanotype process in 1842, Atkins was eager and able to explore the process. Atkins spent nearly a decade of her life publishing a beautiful book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. The book still exists today, and Atkins' enthusiasm shines through the work via Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms.
Why start with Anna Atkins? For one, to show you how old the cyanotype process is. And two, that a woman pioneered its usage. I find both of these facts personally inspiring, as though I'm a part of the ripples of photographic history as I work. That is a part of why I love cyanotype.
But practically speaking, I love about cyanotype because it's so chemically stable and simple (other early chemical processes for photography were notoriously prone to disappearing). As with shooting film or working in a darkroom, I am doing chemical transformation when I do cyanotype. Chemistry was my favorite subject in high school, and it continues to fascinate me. There is a beauty in the algebra of molecules floating around, and I loved the magical transformations.
And cyanotype has another thing going for it that's proven super beneficial to me--you don't need a traditional darkroom. I can expose an image using the UV light of the sun, and develop underneath household lights in my very own bathroom.
As I've mentioned before, I've always worked in small spaces, and therefore it's been a struggle to find satisfying processes that fit in the context of my space (not much), rhythm of life (lots of activity & kids, small chunks of time), and priorities (make art, be as frugal & earth-friendly as possible). I had played with cyanotype in my undergrad, but hadn't worked it into my space and rhythm of creating after college. When we moved further South from our shaded apartment in the northern (and less UV radiant) climate, my wedding and portrait photography business slowed down as a natural effect of moving, and suddenly cyanotype opened back up for me.
It began with a drift into creating with fabric. I had been gifted a sewing machine, and all of a sudden I was able to make connections between sewing and two-dimensional design. Sewing was another form of making pattern and form. As I investigated printing images on fabric, I discovered you could print with cyanotype on fabric too.
Once I had made a sizable number of fabric cyanotypes (including a really huge one I made with my family at the beach), I thought, "well, I could sew these together or embroider them," and I started playing.
My favorite thing is that this magical chemical transformation can itself be transformed into an image--almost any image. The selection and manipulation of the image is almost endless, after the chemical simplicity of the thing. You can work with shadows of objects, a computer transparency print, or even something you draw on a transparency.
Even after the initial printmaking, you can add things afterwards easily. Once processed, the cyanotype image is super stable; if you want to muck with it, it will hold up under many different kinds of additional processes. The sheer simplicity of the process means it's great to do with kids too.
Full disclosure: I'm not working a 100% environmentally-friendly method. I'm dealing with mildly toxic chemicals, which need proper handling, disposal and care. But I work hard to make sure that I put as little yuck back into the world as possible. I only mix as much sensitizer as I need at a time, and if there's "leftover," I usually make additional test sheets, dip some fabric, or sensitize whatever I can so that there is no chemical waste. I scrub all my work areas thoroughly after each printmaking or solutionmaking time, since I'm working out of my own bathroom.
And then here comes the biggest caveat: I'm allergic to the UV light required for the cyanotype process to work.
That's right--photosensitivity is a part of the autoimmune disorder I work around. I'm at risk for a flare if I don't protect myself enough from the sun's rays (and if I simply push myself to work too much in general). It's darkly ironic that I'm a photosensitive photographer; I've told friends that the mystical explanation is that I loved photography so much that I sensitized my entire body.
(Don't worry, I take a lot of precautions. I've also aquired a handy UV light printing box so that I can create without having to expose myself to the sun as much. It even means I can print images on cloudy day, or in the winter when the sun is low in the sky.)
So why keep doing it? I also love how close it comes to painting and photographing, yet not quite. It can be recombined with so many other things. It's a tactile process--you can't create an image without touching it several times. It's also temperamental at times, and I tend to like things that are difficult and unpredictable. I like a challenge, and the satisfaction that comes with completing something tricky.
Cyanotype is both a simple process but a challenge to master and control. That's why I love it.