TTU MFA Photo student Carolina Arellanos finds herself in her bathtub with bugs, paint, peroxide, and onions. She procures x-ray scans of bug bodies, paints over them with oil pastels, places the painted prints in a peroxide water bath, and tones them overnight with the juice of boiled onions or tea. It is all part of her process in producing cyanotype prints. According to Arellanos, this process of creative documentation is “just like magic.”
Anna Atkins (1799 – 1871), an English photographer and botanist, was one of the first to employ the cyanotype photographic printing process, and she used it to document regional flora. Atkins created photo plates by placing wet algae or others plants directly onto light-sensitive paper and exposing the arrangement to sunlight. The chemicals used to sensitize the paper, ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, also render the print’s negative space a deep blue.
Following a radical digitization of the photographic practice that has seen a dramatic decline in photography darkrooms, a number of contemporary photographers are revisiting historic techniques in their continued exploration of the dynamic relationships between light, chemical processes, material to impress an image upon, and the external world.
Like the work of Anna Atkins, lumen prints from the series Excerpts and Artifacts from 33.053444 N, -96.991328 W by Rachel Rushing, on view at the SRO Photo Gallery until October 11th, were the result of ecological research. While working with the Lewisville Aquatic Ecosystem Research Facility in Lewisville, TX, Rushing focused on a particular locale (33.053444 N, -96.991328 W) and observed the striking interplay of a verdant suburban creek bed and “human agency” in the form of industrial water management infrastructure and discarded things, where “because of the pervasiveness of human debris, it has become impossible to physically and mentally differentiate between what is natural and what is man-made.”
In response, Rushing created a series of prints in which she arranged plant materials and litter from the site on gelatin-silver paper and exposed it to the UV rays of the sun. These one-of-a-kind prints effectively document through an alternative photography method how the stuff of nature and the junk of modern consumption are thoroughly enmeshed in the landscapes of our time.
However documentary, processes such as cyanotype and lumen printing involve both freedoms and limitations in color, line, and even form, that recall the medium of painting. TTU School of Art Associate Professor Carol Flueckiger has been exploring the cyanotype printing process for the past 15 years. Prior to working in this method, Flueckiger created small paintings by pressing leaves into paint, and the result appeared photographic. For Flueckiger, cyanotype similarly allowed for “printing into a painted surface” and additionally “offered a layer of texture, imagery and content.”
In the throes of the digital age, the legacy and relevance of Anna Atkins’ work and “analog” photography methods persist. While experimenting with seemingly simplistic historic methods of documentation, artists maintain complexity and variety, and provoke new ways of seeing.