Cyanotype — also known as the “blueprint” or “sunprint” process, among other names — is a photographic process that has been practiced by photographers for ~180 years. Through the magic of combining two chemicals — ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide — you can produce a striking blue image in a matter of moments. Coated onto paper with ease, all you need is a bit of sunshine for the exposure, and water to develop, in order to transform your work into a world of blues.
I’m an artist from the UK, who adapts analogue processes into video animations. I first started experimenting with cyanotype as stills in 2016, attracted by the beauty, ease, and relative sustainability of the process. Experimenting with contact prints of leaves and such, as well as black and white negatives of my dog, I was instantly captivated by the vibrant palette of blues.
But as a video artist, I started to ask, “could cyanotype be used to make standout video works?” Or would even attempting such a thing be a huge, laborious mess, my clothes and mental state forever stained by Prussian blue?
Well, as I was soon to find out, it was a combination of both!
I will be discussing two recent all-cyanotype projects I have worked on: Don’t Be Afraid music video, for artist Tycho Jones in June 2021, and a video for Vivienne Westwood’s London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2022 collection in September 2021, as part of an editorial for DUST Magazine.
The Music Video
I had experimented with cyanotype as moving image in my animation, A Guide to British Trees, creating short clips as part of a wider project. Enamoured with the look, I determined to one day make a film entirely out of cyanotypes, as part of my own practice. For a month, I had planned and prepared an experimental piece about increased flooding from climate change, as a follow-up to my hand-printed film on wildfires (using the lumen process). I had wanted to print this entirely in cyanotype, as I felt the aesthetic would have pared well with visuals of water.
However, realising the cost (in both time and money!) to create an entire cyanotype video, I had to put the project on hold – as I was focused on setting up the Northern Sustainable Darkroom. It was then that I was contacted by Globe Town Records, based in Shoreditch, London. They had seen some of my work on Instagram, particularly my animations on soil, and were keen to get in touch. One of their artists, Tycho Jones, needed a music video for his song, “Don’t Be Afraid”, that had found popularity during the coronavirus crisis.
I suggested to them the idea of a cyanotype-only video for Tycho, as a chance to finally attempt making one, with their support and backing. We talked it over for a couple of days, working out what kind of themes and style would best suit the song’s lyrics, and Tycho as an artist. As most of my work deals with the ecological crisis, I was given the freedom to incorporate my own ideas around climate breakdown and its relationship to birds — whilst representing Tycho’s musical vision.
Crucially, we both agreed on one important thing, that we both love the colour blue!
The cyanotype process
I knew making a video out of cyanotypes was going to be a challenge, but I’m not sure if I was fully prepared for being buried under a mountain of blueprints. Overall, it took 2.5 months to complete. The first month involved shooting and collating footage, as well as editing a digital version. This was then split into individual frames, at 24 frames per second. This meant that I had 24 individual jpegs per second of footage – equalling over 5,000 frames in total.
These were turned into negatives, and printed on acetate sheets using an eco-tank mono printer. Printing 9 frames per A4 sheet, I had to create about 580 cyanotype prints in total. After a shaky start (where I accidentally fogged a batch of paper by not letting it dry properly), I worked out a system where I would coat the paper a day before, dry overnight, and then expose and develop the next day. On average, I was making about 100 cyanotype prints per day, working for twelve hours a day.
At first, I tried printing using the sun, but this proved to be too unreliable when doing 100 a day! I was generously donated the use of a UV bed by MAP charity, an arts educational charity for young people based in Leeds here in the UK. Designed for exposing large screen prints, I was able to expose about 25 prints at a time, using ten-minute exposures. After exposure, I rushed them back to my darkroom in a light sealed box, where I would then wash to complete the development process.
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To save water, I opted for a static wash. Typically, you are advised to wash cyanotypes in running water – but for such a mammoth project, this would have consumed an inordinate amount of water. Instead, I used two trays filled with water, switching the prints between them. I would also spray the prints with white vinegar, to exaggerate the mid tones and bring out some blues. Again, I used white vinegar as a more sustainable alternative to hydrogen peroxide, but you can use lemon juice or other acidic household ingredients.
After printing all the frames, I scanned them into Lightroom, and cropped them, so they would align. I’m sure any animators reading this will probably know a more efficient way of doing this — if so, do get in touch! All in all, the printing, prep, and scanning took another month.
Dropping the scanned frames into Final Cut Pro, I pressed play and prayed to the cyanotype gods that it would work. And much to my surprise, it did! A little too many thumbprints here, and far too many scratches there – but otherwise, an expectedly intense watch!
The Vivienne Westwood SS22 Collection
Following on from the success of Tycho’s video — which recently played on London’s renowned Piccadilly Circus screen — I have been contacted by different individuals and organisations asking for cyanotype footage. One of these organisations was DUST Magazine, a European fashion magazine that was covering London Fashion Week. They asked if I would be interested in doing a piece for one of the designers on show, for an editorial piece.
As my own practice focuses on the ecological crisis, sustainable photography, and climate change — I requested that I cover a designer with a robust sustainability policy. My contact at DUST immediately suggested Vivienne Westwood, as they have recently committed to a number of sustainability and climate commitments.
Due to coronavirus, their fashion week presentation was screened online – meaning I was provided with the video and a press pack of stills featuring their Spring-Summer ‘22 collection.
The theme of the collection is ‘S.O.S’, incorporating nautical themes with a commitment to sustainably produced clothing as a challenge to the climate crisis.
The video was imagined from the original Vivienne Westwood concept of SOS, extending this idea to marine life and the challenges they face during the ecological crisis. Further to that, the footage is edited to create a symbiosis between the models, their clothing, and the marine life – in view of an ethic where humans and nonhumans are on equal footing.
In total, I printed 440 frames of cyanotype for the video, at a speed of 12 frames per second (as opposed to the exhausting 24 frames per second of the music video). I followed the same process as the music video, except using different papers — cartridge paper, and tracing paper. The tracing paper creates an otherworldly effect, as the cyanotype doesn’t properly absorb into this substrate. This sequence starts at the octopus scene, to give a sense of the alien that some marine life holds.
Following printing, I scanned the prints, and once again, dropped them into Final Cut Pro to create the animation. Jack Kennedy then did the sound design, using a variety of electronic techniques to compliment the themes of the piece. It is now part of DUST Magazine’s ‘On the Row’ editorial, showcasing the best of London Fashion Week. The video also exists as a living object in the world — a pile of cyanotypes on my desk!
If you have any other questions, feel free to get in touch on my Instagram – and share any future cyanotype video projects with me!
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Let me just say this is the first time I’ve bothered to watch a music video .. through and through .. in many years. That’s just astonishing work.