What is On-Site Cyanotyping?
Rather than removing objects from their natural environment (especially in protected places like State and National Parks) I make cyanotype photograms on site. I try to disturb as little of the area as possible. Instead, I look for shadows being cast by rocks and plants. Then I place my treated fabric underneath. Sometimes there are loose branches that have fallen. When I find something like that, I slide my cyanotype materials underneath to create the image. All of this MUST be done on a sunny day to get the exposure needed.
“On-site cyanotyping: taking cyanotype materials to a particular location and doing photogram exposures on site from objects and shadows found there.”
In December last year I traveled to Kanab, Utah and did on-site cyanotyping at two locations. The first was inside Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument at the start of the Toadstool Trail. Before breaking out the art supplies, studio dog Stanley, my sister and I walked the trail enjoying the hoodoos and beautiful desert mountains. I soaked in the scenery, took tons of photos, and got some good exercise.
Then I chose a spot near the entrance to the trail to test out my on-site cyanotype process. I had prepared the materials at the house before setting out, so the treated fabric was mounted on a board behind glass, ready to go. As you can see in the photos, I placed the boards next to the path and used the shadows already being cast. I also used loose sticks and sand.
If you have ever been in this area, you will recognize the shadows and textures. Desert plants are sharp and spiky. Their shadows reflect the stripes found on the neighboring rock faces. The red sand is an inescapable force in the southern Utah landscape. Thanks to the wind it constantly moves and shapes the land, looking for new places to invade – which is why it follows you home after every adventure, clinging to your socks and shoes!
The organic outline the sand makes in the cyanotypes mimics the grooves and shapes of the sandstone you see up-close along the trail. The natural elements you find at Kanab (sun, wind, sand) form the landscape and capturing the shape and shadow of them on-site brings the essence of the location directly into the artwork.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes
The second location I went to was Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. This spot was Stanley’s favorite, and we went there just for him. Stanley LOVES sand dunes!!! (We have this in common.) There is no better place for a dog to run (on leash) and dig and play than in nature’s giant sand box.
Again, I started out by exploring the area, enjoying the views, and experiencing the environment. After all the fun and a drink of water for all, I settled on a cyanotype location, right near a path, which had good shadows with which to work.
Every time I expose a cyanotype, I don’t really know how it will turn out. It’s experimental. I just try different things and see what happens. I only make about 10 prints at any site, but I don’t know what I’ve got until I go back home and develop them. Working on site can be tricky, especially managing exposure time. The sun is blazing in the desert of Utah and so cyanotypes don’t need to sit out for very long. The closeness of an object to the treated fabric also effects the exposure time. For example, if the shadow is really dark (i.e. the object is closer to the fabric) then a longer exposure time is needed. But if a plant is tall and straight it’s shadow might be lighter and leaving the cyanotype too long will result in over exposure, which means you lose the image.
On the other hand, you don’t want to accidentally exposure your materials to the sun before you are ready. It’s like the olden days of film camera. If you accidentally exposed the film before taking pictures or after you had taken the photo but before developing, you ruined the image. Since the materials must stay in the dark, I keep them in a dark, opaque plastic storage container. Then when I take the mounted cyanotype fabric out, I do it in the shade. After that I carry it face down to the chosen exposure spot.
On-site cyanotyping also means you may encounter curious onlookers as you work. This sometimes leads to fielding questions about what in the world you are doing! I had several such encounters while working at the dunes and enjoyed getting to share about alternative photography and cyanotype.
Not every cyanotype I made on this trip turned out, but I LOVE the ones that did!!! They’re so unique and reflective of the Kanab area – definitely a different perspective on the desert and the beauty it holds. Traditionally cyanotypes are blue and white but for this trip I took along some orange fabric as a way to capture another prominent feature of the southern Utah landscape. Coral pink sands and rosy, orange rock with a backdrop of blue skies is the unmistakable color combo of the Utah desert. (Also, my favorite colors!) Changing the color of the fabric while still having the blue from the chemicals that make the image gives a whole different effect to the artwork.
There are endless variations to be had with this art form and many different locations to be explored and captured through on-site cyanotype photography. This is just the beginning for me. I hope to return and create more images that reflect the nuanced beauty of Kanab and beyond. Until then, I have a handful of one-of-a-kind original cyanotypes made on-site. It’s my version of plein air artwork – letting a natural environment, changing light, and a moment in time, inform and influence my art. (More photos of this art adventure and others can be found on my Instagram and Facebook accounts.)