As I stood there with my transparent digital negatives, I thought:
The process of developing photographs has never felt more needed than right now.
Right now is a world where my camera roll is filled with 15,000 photos, with 20 photos of the same people in the same pose, and 100 photos from the same day.
Right now is a world where I am guilty of spending hours deciding what I’m going to post on Instagram, and more hours watching and comparing the amount of likes that pour in.
I never thought I’d take a photography class, because what’s the point? All you need is good camera equipment and the internet to learn how to use the camera, and then the world of photography is yours. Wrong.
My photography class focuses on doing old photographic printing processes like developing film in a dark room. I’ll be learning how to do that later on in the course, so what have I been doing in the meantime?
Cyanotypes. And they have changed my life.
In a nutshell, cyanotypes are blue prints that are made by exposing chemicals to a digital photo negative or an object.
But there’s something so moving and poetic in producing a single blue print that I couldn’t resist from sharing the process.
- You mix the right proportions of chemicals, and then paint the paper with it.
The chemicals are light sensitive, so you’re painting this in the dark room under dim red lights. The chemicals can only be used for printing within 48 hours, so once you’ve mixed the chemicals, you’re committed. You’re focused. You will do this print. You have to make sure to coat the paper perfectly before letting it dry in darkness for at least 1-2 hours., If it’s overcoated, the image could have spots. Undercoating can lead to the image not appearing. You coat the paper perfectly so that the 1-2 hours of waiting to dry was not in vain.
2. Printing out a digital photo negative on transparent film.
This is my favorite step. This is when you pick the photo. Sounds unexciting, but in reality I can feel my heart swelling more and more as I move deeper into the process, and let me tell you why. You spend a great deal of time working with that one photo. For example, I chose a photo I took of my sister once. It’s one of my favorite photos captured. So there it is, taking up the giant computer screen. Then I turn it black and white because cyanotypes are essentially black and white but with blue chemicals. Seeing the image in black and white really changes the essence of the original photo. You figure out what it is that you love so much about that moment.
You figure out what you want to highlight and emphasize, and make minor editing adjustments accordingly. After that, just when you thought you knew the photo so well, you click “invert”, and all the blacks of the image become white, all the whites become black, and you are taken aback. It’s shocking. An image can look so different just from flipping the color scheme. Sometimes it looks scary. But it’s okay because you know. You know this is your precious photo. You print the negative on transparent film and make sure to only handle the edges. People around you only see the creepy x-ray, and thus are forced to trust that you’ve picked a good image.
And you know it is because you loved it in color, you loved making it black and white, and now with the negative in your hand, you feel like you know this one single image inside and out.
During this whole step, you can’t help but reflect on that image. The when, where, why, who questions all flood your mind calmly, and reflecting on it while editing the image feels immensely therapeutic.
3. Use the photo UV coating machine.
Now you grab the paper with dried chemical and bring it to the machine. You place the paper with your negative on top in the machine and let the machine shoot UV rays through the transparent film into the chemical coated paper. This process takes at least 7 minutes, so you’re just waiting.
You’re waiting at the point of no return. The moment of truth. Will the image that you put all your money on come out as you want? 7 minutes later, the machine is done and you carefully lift off the negative.
You take out the chemical paper that went from looking yellow to a deep blue now, and wash it with rushing water. The blues become darker and darker, and soaked in water is your beautiful blue printed image becoming stronger with every minute longer that it washes. It’s your precious baby. It’s finally born, and you love it just like you knew you would. (Unless it doesn’t come out well, then return to step 1!)
Printing cyanotypes is an experience. It really forces you to take the time to figure out what it is that YOU love, and
marinate that one single moment of your life that is forever gone.
I take back my ignorance in thinking developing photos in the dark room was unnecessary in this day and age.
It’s important. Very important.