Photos in the Archives: Cyanotypes

Guest blogger: Megan

“What are these blue thingies?” That’s a question I’ve heard countless times from interns and volunteers processing photo collections.  “Are they supposed to look that way?”

Alaska Native man and woman.Yep, they sure are.  Those “blue thingies” are one of my favorite early photographic processes: cyanotypes.  And they are indeed a brilliant, unmistakable blue, as you can see in this wonderful  cyanotype (right) of an Alaska Native man and woman taken by Edwin F. Glenn in 1898 during his explorations of Cook Inlet with the U. S. Army.  Cyanotypes achieve this distinct color because the paper is brushed with an iron-salt solution (often potassium ferricyanide and ammonium ferric citrate) that turns blue when exposed to light.  They are literally “blueprints” – and a very similar process is still used today to make copies of architectural prints by the same name.  Though the cyanotype process itself was first developed in 1842 by astronomer and scientist Sir John F. W. Herschel, most cyanotypes, like this one, were produced between 1880 and 1920.

What I personally love about cyanotypes is that they always seem to have a kind of innocent quality about them.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, photographers had their pick of a numerous ways to make photographic prints, from the expensive and artful (such as platinotypes, luminously toned with platinum powder) to the inexpensive and artless (as seen in countless blurry snapshots caught by early Kodak push-button cameras).  Cyanotypes were an intriguing, happy medium.  They offered the budding artist a chance to experiment with photographic chemistry without emptying her wallet on costly supplies.  Because of this, cyanotypes were largely the amateur’s choice of process, and it’s true that many of those found in today’s archival collections bear witness to the fumblings of unskilled photographers, being underdeveloped, blurry, unevenly cut, or worse.

Expedition member.However, there are equal numbers of nineteenth-century cyanotypes that have a crystalline details and fine shading, like this cyanotype (left), also taken by Edwin Glenn on his 1898 expedition, of a man reclining on a bear skin.  Glenn was a classic cyanotype photographer: an amateur whose diary reveals that he took care with the details of lighting and composition but whose ultimate concern was to make an efficient, workable (but not necessarily “artistic”) final print that showed the scientific details of his expeditions to Alaska.  At the same time, there’s something inherently captivating about good cyanotypes like his.  No matter whether Glenn intended them as simple scientific depictions of the Cook Inlet expeditions and the Inlet’s peoples and geography, the blue tones of cyanotypes add a bit of intensity that makes even the mundane look fresh and interesting.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be highlighting other early photographic processes that appear in our collections.  Up next: tintypes!

[Editor's note: Courtesy of grant funding supplied by the Alaska State Library and the Institute for Museum and Library Services in 2008-2009, A&SC was able to digitize and provide metadata for all the photographs we hold in the Glenn papers and to place them online in the Alaska's Digital Archives. Search Edwin Glenn. Not all of the images are cyanotypes and not all of the images were taken by Glenn, but you'll find several. That grant also allowed us to provide a digital edition of the diary too.]