Bolt from the Blue

Leslie Giuliani makes cyanotypes on cloth

 
I just hate taking pictures. The camera never seems to contain the images I want to produce. Stupid machine! My college photography professor was an MIT graduate who taught Ansel Adams’s 1941 “Zone System” which emphasized perfection in film exposure and development, perfection in lens choice, value structure and camera placement...you get the point. I hated the process, received an “A” in the course, and chose to do none of it ever again.  But photography, image making using light, is still somehow irresistible to me.
 
My light bulb moment (excuse the pun) came when a “non-silver” photography course was offered -- by a different teacher, an adjunct, an outsider.  It offered a “how to” for making photographs in a highly unstructured, unpredictable way using old time formulas.  We learned to make light-sensitive emulsions for gum bichromate prints, Van Dyke Brown prints, and cyanotypes.  We could apply the emulsion onto a number of diverse surfaces in many different ways; brushing, dipping, spattering. All of it allowed for lots of expressive creating. 
 
Everything was developed using UV light exposure:  aka sunlight.   No darkroom. No expensive photographic paper.  Any surface that could absorb the emulsion and then be rinsed at the end of the process was acceptable. 
 
I liked the “eye of newt, toe of frog” chemistry that created the emulsions. I remember going to New York Chemical to pick up my box of materials, which included Ammonium Ferricyanide and Hydrochloric Acid. The warehouse manager asked suspiciously, “What is this stuff for?” 
 
I like Cyanotypes best, because their deep blue color is so rich and moody.  And I did manage to master the process.  But the actual image making was still a problem. That darned camera again! Enter the photogram. (Think Man Ray.) Photograms are made by laying an object directly on the light sensitive emulsion to produce a silhouette of the object. The opacity of the object or light leaking around its edges determines the value (lightness/darkness) of the final image. 
 
I began to make paper cut outs.  My imagery is simple and iconic and the scissors were the perfect tool to keep the forms willfully un-fussy.  Any value variations would come from layering the paper: more paper layers equals a paler image. 
 
What to print on?  Paper was a problem for me.  There was the looming framing cost and the glass barrier to protect the final product.  My husband’s aunt had died and left me (don’t laugh) old bed sheets of soft, worn cotton.  Problem solved.  I liked their slightly unraveled edge and the prospect of easy hand sewing for added surface interest in the final piece.
 
Chemistry time. The emulsion was made in my dim studio -- a simple proportional mixing of Ferric Ammonium Citrate and Ammonium Ferricyanide, done thoughtfully, wearing gloves and a mask.  The stuff is very blue and will stain anything it touches.
 
Now to put the emulsion on the cloth. The cloth had to be ripped to size (large sheets being too unwieldy) to keep the grain straight and to keep the edge organic.  I decided to soak the cloth in the emulsion and wring it out to be sure of an even coating. What a mess!  I had to set up a system for making the emulsion, soaking the pre-ripped cloth and drying the cloth all in semi-darkness. The cloth actually needed to be dried in total darkness because small amounts of light over the drying period would desensitize the emulsion.  I set up a makeshift “darkroom” in a cedar closet in my garage about 2 feet wide and eight feet long -- like a tall coffin. I put a red safelight in the bulb socket. I put a basin on a shelf and poured in the emulsion.  I put all of the cloths into the bath and squeezed until I knew they were saturated.  I wrung each one out individually and laid it out to dry.  My system: a clothes drying rack, a few shelves, and the floor.  
 
A few days later the cloths are dry, the cut-outs are made. It’s June, the sun is out and it’s shadowless noon. Time to expose the prints.  In the dim studio I lay the pieces of cloth on a piece of plywood and arrange the cut-outs on top -- some singly, some in compositions.  On top of the whole shebang I lay a sheet of plate glass to keep the papers from blowing away. It weighs a ton. I carry the sandwich outside to a waiting table, conscious that there are no shadows to interfere with the sunlight. I wait. When the exposed areas look very dark, it’s done. At least I think so because it’s always a guess. It’s taken just a few minutes.  
 
Removing the glass and paper, the images begin to reveal themselves.  Now a thorough rinse in water and hydrochloric acid to intensify the color.  I repeat the whole process in September and the exposure was MUCH longer, simply because the seasonal sun is a big variable. The prints on the worn bed sheets vary wildly in their clarity, a lack of predictability that I enjoy.
 
It’s fun to reuse and re-combine the paper shapes in a variety of compositions to create different stories. Right now I have years old sensitized cloths in a shoebox.  I have no idea if they will still work.  I’ll have to wait until June.
 
For more about author and artist Leslie Giuliani, visit her at www.lesliegiuliani.com.
 
 
 

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