February 18 – The High Plains (cyanotype)

cyanotreeRather than discuss a vintage camera, today’s Film February photograph highlights an antiquated printing process that, unlike the abnormally frail Daguerreotype or the albumen paper negative print, is still in somewhat frequent use today.

The “cyanotype” is a printing process that produces a blue-tinted print – cyan colored, even – so it’s an unironic name. Using basic ferric (iron) salts, this is one of the most affordable printing processes ever invented. This is why engineers used the process, with frequency, well into the 20th century; you would recognize them as “blueprints.”

The process uses two chemicals: ammonium iron(III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide.

During the latter half of the 19th century, photographers used horses and donkeys to carry their mobile darkrooms, consisting of photo chemicals, containers, camera equipment (view cameras were quite cumbersome) and a tent that served as dark room. Organic compounds commonly referred to as ‘ethers’ were used to dissolve collodion silver for wet-plate photography – never mind what wet-plate photography is, just know that it was the dominant method. The instances of field photographers being overcome by ether fumes and dying were not rare. In fact, the chemical nature of print photography has represented significant risk to all photographers prior to the digital revolution.

The pyrogallol (“pyro”) film developing process functions to tan and harden film images in a low sulfite environment. In the era prior to darkroom tongs, latex gloves, and ventilators, this chemical caused serious nerve damage to a generation of photographers. It’s most famously linked to Edward Weston, America’s founding father of photography. If you don’t know who Edward Weston is, don’t worry – you know his most famous pupil. Weston taught a young Ansel Adams. He had previously been though to have died of Parkinson’s disease. The symptoms of Parkinson’s are identical to prolonged exposure to pyrogallol, and he worked with this chemical for most of his life.

Selenium toners are used to make silver gelatin prints more archival. The selenium metal is less prone to aging, fading, or degrading than the silver halide crystals that it replaces. It also gives prints additional tonal density and a slight brown color tone that many photographers find appealing in their black-and-white work. Selenium toner poses cancer risks and respiratory damage if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Cyanotype printing is widely believed to be a harmless process, but potassium ferricyanide can be incredibly dangerous if improperly handled. Reactions can occur with other darkroom chemicals, producing a noxious gas that can be fatal.

Why do I say all of this? Well, I suppose because I find it all very interesting. Photography is both a science and an art, and I think that we forget that sometimes, especially with how easy photography has become with our smartphones. Prior to the digital revolution, photographers weren’t just ‘witnesses with cameras.’ They didn’t simply “Point. shoot. Viola! Here’s your print.”We were visual composers, yes, but we were also reasonably experienced chemists, often coming up with our own chemical mixtures – our own recipes – to produce desired film grain, image density, contrast, print aesthetic, and color tone. We don’t often think about the photographer in his darkroom (nor, contemporaneously, hunched over a computer screen). We prefer to think of the photographer in the field, riding in the back of a muddied Jeep, sitting on the 50-yard-line, credentialed and in the front row at the press conference. Photography is spent half out in the world, gathering images, and half in the dark, fine-tuning the images we’ve gathered.

Photographers have always had a history of risking health and personal injury in order to execute their craft, and I’m proud to consider myself among that cohort. I haven’t covered war, traveled to a third-world nation, been kidnapped. I’m no hero, but I like to think that I’ve had the opportunity to bear witness to extraordinary events, and I was there with my camera. I have participated, in my own small way, to that rich history.

The lessons I learned in the darkroom are lessons of patience, an appreciation for chemistry, and the rewards of diligence. Pulling prints from a negative is an involved process, and no amount of Photoshop can replace the sheer joy of walking into the light with fresh, wet print. To walk out of the red light in the darkroom and see what your print actually looks like, to have been working for hours and hours, and finally see that you’ve dialed it in, that you have the perfect print.

You stink. You’re tired. It’s three o’clock in the morning. And damn is it exhilarating. That’s why I still shoot film when I can.