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Cyanotypes: Proof and Archive


**Check out this fantastic resource on the history and process of cyanotypes**

Cyanotype is a low cost, alternative photographic process used to produce ‘cyan’ blue prints. Equal amounts of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide are combined to create a photosensitive solution. The solution can be brushed onto paper, fabric or other absorbent materials, and negatives, positives or objects can be placed on the surface and exposed to light to create a rich, blue photographic result. The process is so sensitive that any slight variation in transparency will create tone. Even a tiny sliver of transparent sticky tape will show up in the image depending on the length of exposure. For this project, we had to compile a collection of images to archive using the cyanotype process in combination with monotype and/or dry point printing. This was a monumental task! Achieving the desired result from the cyanotypes was an incredible amount of work and not as straightforward as Wikipedia makes it sound. One has to have the right paper, the right amount evenly brushed onto the surface and just the right amount of time for exposure to UV light (a few seconds or minutes can make a significant difference) to achieve the desired result. In addition to the cyanotype process, we also learned other alternative photographic techniques, such as anthotypes, chlorophyll and photograms We also learned about toning with tannic-based solutions, including tea and wine, and other chemical based toning methods including bleach and soda ash solutions. Since these were a little less temperamental than creating anthotypes, I decided to include these methods in my final project.

**Hover your mouse over the images for more details**

My attempt at the chlorophyll photo process. Areas that are blocked by sunlight should lose colour, but alas, this didn't go as planned!

The photograms were more successful. These are made by placing objects or negatives over photosensitive paper and exposing them to UV light.

For my archive, I decided to do a study of spirits from Slavic and Trinidadian folklore that shared parallel characteristics and related to the same element (earth, water, fire or air). These were, at times, easy to match, and at other times a little more challenging. I chose Trinidadian and Slavic spirits as a way to explore two cultures that were 'left behind' after my father and mother's parents immigrated to Canada. While I was able to rekindle my father's memory on the subject of Trinidadian spirits, I can’t imagine how many stories my mother's parents - who were only two generations away - could have told me about this esoteric aspect of their culture. I chose spirits because of their obscurity. Prior to the introduction of more institutionalised and common religions such as Christianity and Islam, there would have been a belief system in spirits that were colourful, mysterious and revealing of a culture’s values, habits and way of life. As religion has now become more dominant and wide-spread, these ancient beliefs in the spiritual world seem eroded or forgotten (for me, anyway). I wanted to reconnect with these belief systems not necessarily to come closer to a lost identity, but to realise that vastly different cultures and traditions share common threads that confirm that they're not really as different as they first appear. One thing that stood out amongst all the research was that there are invisible entities that are responsible for all the good and evil occurrences in the world, and while humans have some influence over their behaviour, they are not ultimately responsible for any great achievements or tragedies. For example, if a child is left playing by a river and drowns, a parent is partly absolved of the responsibility because they could potentially blame the devious water spirit, the Rusalka, who lured the child close enough to pull him down into her watery depths. Perhaps the parent warned the child about Rusalki several times, putting the onus on the child to beware and stay well away from the water's edge. In any event, blame or credit can be justly attributed to not just a person's action or inaction, but to the nature of the spirit's whim.

Rusalki are female water spirits who drowned to death before their time -  either by suicide or forcefully by a husband or lover. She often takes vengeance on males by luring them in with her beauty before drowning them, but anyone  - even children - can be unsuspecting victims.

Each chosen spirit is linked to a common theme or element, and demonstrates similar behaviours to a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ spirit across both cultures. For example, the Leshy and Papa Bois are both versions of what is more popularly known as the Green Man. Each are protectors of the forest and all life that dwell there, each has an animal companion, each have horns and green beards, and each has its own way of protecting the animals from nearby hunters. Their differences can be found in their idiosyncratic behaviours or habits, and of course, they have some physical differences as well. The Leshy’s beard is made up of pine needles whereas Papa Bois’ consists of leaves; Papa Bois is normally depicted as a black African shape shifter, and the Leshy is simply described as humanoid with the ability to shape shift as well; Papa Bois has cloven cow hooves for legs whereas the Leshy has those of a goat’s; and while there is only one Papa Bois for all forests, there are many Leshy - each in charge of his own forest. There are also female versions of the Leshy - who are normally married to other male Leshy. Papa Bois is also married, but his wife is the water spirit, Mama Dlo - the protector of lakes and rivers and all water-dwelling life forms.

A leshy and his loyal pack of wolves.

Papa Boise often shape shifts into deer.

I began by reading about each spirit and finding their ‘kin’. I focused on the more popular ones and noticed common threads between many of the spirits I researched. The first was that each was associated with an element (as I mentioned before) and the second was that they had several symbolic elements and objects that also overlapped to some degree. For example, the Ovnnik and the Soucouyant are both fire spirits and shape shifters - one disguises itself as a black cat and the other an old, reclusive lady. However, how they use fire is quite different; the Ovnnik will usually burn down threshing houses by setting fire to the grain - often capriciously if not appeased with offerings of a Rooster or bliny. The Soucouyant, on the other hand, sheds her skin and transforms into a fireball at night. Rather than setting fire to places or people (the Ovnnik usually burns down threshing houses after trapping the farmer’s children inside), she sucks the blood of those who are sleeping. In Caribbean folklore, when one awakes feeling fatigued they often blame the Soucouyant for visiting them and draining them of their blood and, therefore, energy. One can stave her off by spreading rice grains around the outside of their house. She will spend the entire night picking up each grain until day break, when she is forced to return home and re-cloak herself in her skin.

Once I decided upon the spirits, I started collecting images from the internet to collage together. All the images hold meaning, and most of the spirits represented are a collage of many features relevant to that spirit. For example, I scoured the internet for mermaids, coiled snakes and serpentine wigs for Mama Dlo. She is comprised of three separate images that fit seamlessly together. She is normally represented with golden hair, but when angered her hair becomes alive with serpents - similar to Medusa. I experimented with both positive and negative images. The negative image of the moon below would result in a positive image (a normal, pale moon), whereas the positive image of Mama Dlo below resulted in shadowy, transparent skin and glowing eyes which added to the supernatural effect I was looking for.

All the images were printed on transparency film, cut up and collaged on to acetate. These were then placed over the cyanotyped paper and exposed to intense light using a UV light box. Direct sunlight works well, too.

After collaging the images - both positive and negative - I began exposing them. Quite a few were successful in the beginning, which I was incredibly pleased about. We were encouraged to use watercolour paper for this project, but I placed my bets on my favourite Dutch Etching printmaking paper instead (it hasn’t failed me yet and I use it for just about everything). It produced incredibly rich, deep blue cyanotypes, so I decided to continue using this. After MANY subsequent failures due to a few accidental coats of exposed emulsion (do NOT use the emulsion if it’s been left out long enough to turn green) I finally had a pile of ‘drafts’ and a pile of ‘refined’ cyanotypes. I used the drafts to experiment with monoprinting.

I decided not to do drypoint as the images were already very intricate and detailed. I thought some subtle colour and silhouettes would be more appropriate for all of the images. To do this, I created stencils for each one. This made it easier to colour in certain areas (such as the moon) and also highlight important symbols that I could use in my index. I aimed to keep it soft and light by ghost printing, or colour in certain images, such as the Domovoi’s red butterflies, so they stood out.

Once I was happy with my final cyanoypes/monoprints, I had to figure out how I would house and archive the prints. I was certain that I wanted to make an archival box, and decided to make a solander box with blue buckram and straw board. This took about a day and a half, and I wanted to ensure I got it right the first time, so I measured each section several times before cutting. I was very pleased with the results and am now eager to make a few more for other projects.

I then had to decide how I wanted to pair my spirits. Initially, I thought I would make each of them individual pockets and lay them side by side in a large box, but realised that the images were far too large for this. Then I decided to make pockets with windows housing two spirits per pocket (one for either side of the pocket). The windows were used to reveal the face of each spirit and an associated symbol, and I achieved this by photocopying all of the cyanotypes, cutting out areas where I wanted windows, placing them over the pockets and tracing the windows with a pencil so I knew precisely where to cut.

I also wanted to make sure I included the cyanotype process in crafting the pockets, but was hesitant to maintain the same bright blue colour I had with my cyanotype spirits. I wanted something that could contrast that beautiful, rich blue, so I decided, after cyanotyping the stencils onto the paper, to tone them all with green tea. This produced a deep burgundy brown (as in the above image), and in some areas a brownish green. I was pleased with how these turned out, and if I had had more time I would have taken more care to tone each pocket individually. Instead, I did them altogether at the same time which caused them to become uneven since the surfaces weren’t all completely exposed to the tea solution (the surfaces on the very top and the very bottom were). After some research, I realised that it is recommended to tone one at a time for even results, and to observe them after one or two hours to see the gradual change in colour. Green tea is an excellent toner - you can achieve navy blue, greenish blue, eggplant purple and brown depending on the strength and length of time you tone. I left all six of my pockets in the laundry sink for at least 36 hours, rotating them regularly to ensure they all were evenly soaked in the bath. I had also noticed that the warmer the bath, the quicker the toning, so I would occasionally scoop up some tea water to boil and pour back into the bath.

Once the pockets were toned, I monoprinted a few more silhouette animals in dark colours and cut out the windows using the photocopy technique. I decided to create an accordion-style artist book by using leftover paper from the pockets and monoprinting them to folding them as part of the spine. I used a design that allowed me to stitch the pockets to individual, folded sections of the spine. I also decided to use a Japanese bookbinding stitch for each page as well.

I was happy with the results. The book design is suitable for the cyanotypes as it’s sturdy and it can be displayed either lying flat or standing upright. I was especially happy with the stitching as this is generally used for binding an entire book rather than just pages. I was unable to find waxed linen thread in time to get the colours I wanted (I could hardly find any coloured thread to begin with) so I opted for some jute thread I found at a craft shop, and used a stitch pattern I found online.

I was happy with the final result as this is my first artist book. I would love to continue making these and the archival boxes, and further experiment with a variety of bookmaking and binding techniques. I learned an awful lot, and not just in the way of alternative photo processes, printing and archiving, but a part of my past that had been forgotten and buried with my ancestors. It has moved me to wonder what else has yet to be unearthed, relearned and reborn as art.

#cyanotype #monoprint #archive #ancestry #stencils #photography #myth #legend #folklore

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