Last week I went on a couple of FIRE Lab field trips with colleagues Steph and Joelle to walk the River Tawe Path, making cyanotypes, or blueprints, along the way. I’d prepared Bockingford paper with a solution of two chemicals, Ammonium ferric citrate and Potassium ferricyanide, in a darkroom and took them with me in a light-proof bag to prevent fogging. On the first day we exposed objects against the paper in brilliant sunshine for 10 minutes but on the overcast and rainy day 2, I upped the exposure time to 20 minutes.
Cyanotype was one of the earliest forms of photography, invented by Sir John Herschel the Astronomer Royal in 1842. It was quickly adopted by botanists; Anna Atkins used it to record botanical specimens and produced the first photographic book in 1843 using cyanotype. Before long it was superseded by other more reliable forms of photography but was still used to produce blueprints for engineers. Nowadays it’s very popular in fine art printmaking and alternative photography. The exposed papers are developed simply in cold water with a dash of vinegar, keeping the water flowing for the first five minutes or so.
Using What’s There
We used plants alongside the riverbank, rubbish found along the path, and gravel from the water’s edge to construct our compositions, mostly holding the objects in place with sheets of glass or larger stones. Some of the digital photographs of the compositions in situ are as lovely as the finished prints.
I’ve always acknowledged the close links between science, technology and art and since I’ve been artist in residence with the FIRE Lab team I’ve been able to put this into practice in a structured way. This collaboration between science, art and design in FIRE Lab is part of the growing SciArt movement that started about half a century ago, back in the 1960’s, when some engineers and artists in the USA got together and started working on interdisciplinary projects that became known as SciArt. Then it all sort of fizzled out … Fast forward a quarter century to the UK in the mid ‘90s and SciArt resurfaced with the Wellcome Trust, which funded a decade of research projects to see what happened when medical scientists and artists work together. It was good! Since then, there have been more and more scientific research projects across British universities that include an artist as part of the team.
As well as producing some interesting works of art, the cyanotypes are also useful for recording the rubbish we found polluting the river and the land around it in a way that is more evocative than a photograph and which might resonate with people because they’re such lovely images. We’ll be walking the Tawe every season for the next couple of years, trying out different art techniques each time. On the first field trip in May 2019 we did ‘walk and draw’ and then cyanotype at the end of August. Next season we’ll be into early Winter so we’re going to do some land art …… watch this space ….
— This post was written by Rose Davies, aka Rosie Scribblah, and originally posted on her blog. Stay tuned for our next blog post in two weeks! Thank you all for reading!