2013 Annan Lecture | Dr Mike Ware


Iconostasis, Monastery of Chrysoroyyatissa, Cyprus © Mike Ware

Cyanotype: a Blueprint for Visual Vandalism?

Date: 14 February 2013 at 6.00 pm

Location: Jeffrey Room at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow.

The Lecture will take place in conjunction with Blueprint 2013, an event that aims to explore the links between alternative photographic processes, photomechanical printmaking, and reprography of line drawings for engineering and architecture.

In 1842, while Henry Talbot and Louis Daguerre were progressing their respective discoveries of photography in silver, Sir John Herschel invented an entirely novel method for making photographic prints in the iron pigment long-known to artists as Prussian blue.

Herschel dubbed his process ‘cyanotype’, from the Greek for dark blue, and proved it to be the forerunner of a whole gamut of new alternative photographic printing processes which he called siderotypes, all based on the light-sensitivity of certain salts of iron. But for the next thirty years cyanotype found little use, beyond the exquisite ‘autobotanography’ of Anna Atkins and her circle.

Following Herschel’s death in 1871, his disregarded – and unpatented – cyanotype process was usurped, without acknowledgement, as ‘ferroprussiate paper’ and launched commercially for ‘blueprinting’. This became the first large-scale reprographic process, employed for the following eighty years to copy the engineering and architectural plans in every drawing office of the world. However, as an expressive medium for pictorial photography, cyanotype remained a maverick owing to its uncompromising colour.

Traditionalist critics and connoisseurs deplored its strident images, but a few artists welcomed the pigment for their work, and it was also used for the documentary photography of some of the largest engineering enterprises in history.

This lecture will trace an anecdotal history of the aesthetic problems and varied achievements of this simple and inexpensive process: as expressive art and historical document, as illustration and plan, as cartoon and circuit diagram. No other medium of photography can claim such a diversity of uses as the humble cyanotype.

Biographical Note

Mike Ware taught and researched in chemistry at the University of Manchester, before committing himself in 1992 to the independent study of the science, history, art and conservation of alternative photographic processes. He has consulted for National Museums in the UK and USA. His researches on printing in noble metals were awarded the Hood Medal of the Royal Photographic Society in 1990.

His books, Mechanisms of Image Deterioration in Early Photographs (1994) and Cyanotype: the History, Science and Art of Photographic Printing in Prussian Blue (1999), were published by the Science Museum, London, and his latest monographs are Gold in Photography and The Chrysotype Manual (2006).

By way of a counterbalance to scholarly activity, he exhibits and lectures on his personal photographic work in Europe, the USA, and Australia, and has appeared on BBCTelevison in the Open University series ‘The Chemistry of Creativity’ (1995). Regarding photography as an ideal meeting ground for science and art, he is attempting to bridge the gap between the “Two Cultures” by using chemical science to enhance the art of photographic expression.



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