Cyanotype image in blue and white of leaves by photographer Edgar Miller

Beauty in Blue: Exploring the Earliest Form of Photography, Cyanotypes

A cyanotype is a magical thing. White shapes emerge ghost-like against an indigo-blue background, revealing a negative image in a striking monochrome palette.

Cyanotypes also carry a rich history of the earliest experiments in photography–and yet they are remarkably easy to create. You can learn all about cyanotypes and create your own magical blue images in an upcoming workshop with Fort Worth photographer Edgar Miller.

Drawing of John Herschel, published in 1846
Drawing of John Herschel, published in 1846

Cyanotypes were invented by English scientist Sir John Herschel in 1842. Herschel was a master of multiple scientific disciplines. As an astronomer, he studied the fuzzy but bright shapes that were later recognized to be far-distant galaxies; he named seven of the moons of Saturn and four of Uranus. He studied the flowers of South Africa and investigated the causes of color blindness and astigmatism.

He also made significant contributions to photography–including coining the word itself in 1839. He made one of the first photographs on glass that same year.

Botanicals in Blue:
Cyanotype Workshop

June 17, 11 am – 1 pm

Around 1840, Herschel began experimenting with coating paper with a solution of iron salts and then exposing it to sunlight. He theorized that light would convert the salts into a new chemical, ferric ferrocyanide, better known as the pigment Prussian blue. Where sunlight was blocked, the paper would remain white. Washing the paper in water would remove any unexposed chemicals and make the image permanent–i.e., “fixes” it. Herschel called the resulting print a “cyanotype.”

A cyanotype image by Anna Atkins from her 1843 book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

Cyanotypes were an immediate hit, and their usefulness in botanical illustration was quickly recognized. The first photographically illustrated book was created by pioneering photographer Anna Atkins, a friend of the Herschel family. Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was published in 1843. Later books contained cyanotypes of ferns and flowering plants. You can see many of Atkins’ cyanotypes in the book Anna Atkins: Blueprints in the BRIT Library.

Cyanotype was later adopted as a method for reproducing technical plans and drawings–which is where the term “blueprint” originates. For many decades, architectural plans were, in fact, blue.

Cyanotype was overtaken by other types of photograph as the 19th century wore on, but some photographers continued to embrace the process for its simplicity and artistic potential. Many contemporary artists use cyanotype as a medium.

Miller will introduce the cyanotype process and explore tips and techniques for creating these ethereal images using the flora of the Garden. You’ll leave with your own cyanotype creation and the skills to continue to explore this camera-less photography method. Registration for this class closes tomorrow, June 17, so sign up today!

Related Articles

Herbarium specimen from AABP project - Blakea spindet

Armchair Botany and the Andes to Amazon Biodiversity Program: Volunteers Make Scientists’ Hard Work Accessible

Important botanical science happens in the field. Researchers tramp across habitats, sometimes in remote and rugged regions of the world, collect plant samples, document the distribution of species and study ecosystems in action. Later those scientists return to the lab with boxes of specimens, and a new and equally important phase of research begins. Scientists label, mount and digitize specimens to make them accessible to the global science community. They become a resource that can be studied in multiple contexts–as part of an ecosystem or as a member of a particular plant family, for example.

Read More »
Group of students practice tai chi

Meditation in Motion: Discovering Tai Chi

Slow, deliberate, beautiful movement is the essence of tai chi. A practice that melds the mind and the body, tai chi improves balance and muscle strength while reducing stress and calming the mind. And you can learn all about it in the Garden’s upcoming wellness series, 24-Form Tai Chi.

Read More »
Two yellow lemons on a tree

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Citrus Trees

Picture it: you wake on a lovely fall day, walk onto your patio and pick a Satsuma mandarin from your very own tree. You peel back back the bright orange skin and bite into a perfectly ripe, tart yet sweet, orange. This could be you–with a little time, a little knowledge and a citrus tree of your own. The good news? You can find the knowledge and the trees at the upcoming Fall Plant Sale. The time you’ll need to provide yourself.

Read More »
Spray of water from an outdoor fountain

The Wonder of Water: Take your Garden to the Next Level with a Water Feature

We love our water features at the Garden, especially in the heat of summer. The long, tranquil basin that greets guests as soon as they enter the gates, the gushing fountain that stands in the center of the Rose Garden, the serene koi ponds of the Japanese Garden—there’s nothing else like the relaxing sound and sight of water. What if you could bring that peace and serenity back home with you? With a little time and effort, you can—with water features for your home garden.

Read More »
Mother and daughters on the way to school

Strengthen Family Connections with Back-to-School Traditions

The start of a new school year can be both stressful and thrilling. Certainly for families with school-age children, it’s a time of nervous preparation, of anxiety about the year ahead, of shopping and scheduling and strategizing. But mixed into that stress is excitement about new things to learn and new friends to meet. To foster excitement and reduce anxiety, Education Program Coordinator Joanne Howard encourages families to mark the start of the new school year by establishing family traditions.

Read More »