Cyanotypes and digital negatives

I went to a show opening this weekend, and as always, got into some interesting conversations with other show attendees.  It’s amazing the people you can meet at something as simple as a gallery reception.

Anyway, one of these conversations inadvertently ended up on the subject of my work – cyanotypes.  As it happens, the person I was talking to had some knowledge of traditional photography and already knew what a cyanotype was.  Pretty surprising, given how esoteric of a craft it is.  We delved a little into the specifics of my process, and I happened to mention that I use digital negatives.  Her instant response was skepticism: how could that look like a “real” cyanotype? (paraphrasing)

I wanted to laugh.  If I had a dollar for every time I heard that, I would be a very rich artist indeed.

It’s funny that the world of traditional photography clings so stubbornly to its belief that anything digital is anathema and low quality.  It’s especially funny since the best known process today, black and white silver-based photography, was itself sneered at by those who put in the time and effort to produce laborious wet plate or dry plate emulsions. 

Photography has always been characterized by innovation: hybrid processes like my cyanotype negatives carry that tradition along on a new frontier.  And I have to say, some of the pioneers of hybrid processes produce work that’s simply stunning. 

For example, Mark Nelson, a photographer who works with precision digital negatives (slightly different process than I use) prints spectacular images in platinum/palladium.  For serious traditional photographers, platinum/palladium is the Lexus of printing – the best quality with a corresponding price tag. 

Dan Burkholder works with digital negatives in a platinum over gold leaf process – exquisite, different, and rich images.   A lot of his more recent work is done with the Iphone – he’s clearly a pioneer in all things digital.

Another pioneer, Ron Reeder, (caution, do not click link if nudes bother you) works mostly with Palladium prints, sometimes with an additional layer of gum bichromate for a touch of color.  Reeder uses a quad-tone digital process to print his negatives – a highly precise application of ink for exact control of his negatives. 

All of these artists have the funds to work with a traditional darkroom negative but they use digital negatives.  I think that the level of control over a digital negative may be partially why.  Clearly, these 3 artists are extremely picky about their images – and they wouldn’t use a digital negative if it was inferior.  It’s rather funny that my process, cyanotype, is typically viewed by most hybrid artists as simple and less beautiful.

A digital negative can’t be dismissed as low quality off-hand.  Like everything else digital, the devil’s in the details (or the quality.)  While I don’t measure up to the caliber of photographer that these three are, I still try to convince the skeptics – one person at a time – that digital negatives are the next evolutionary step of alternative processes.

Print details:

Size: 7×10 negative

Process: cyantype, double coated Canson Montval watercolor paper

4 thoughts on “Cyanotypes and digital negatives

  1. Ah the old school purists.. Sometimes you just have to nod and go along with it, knowing you know better 😉 I love this image btw, and when I have time I shall sit down and learn about cyanotype. I bet my dad knows about it. He largely has been taking photos with his iphone too. He recently had a show where he printed a bunch of iphone pics he took while out biking/driving and hung them on the front windows of the gallery. It turned out nice. Anyway keep it up, and btw I love this shot

  2. Your cyanotypes are beautiful and you have inspired me to use digital negatives. I’ve been using the copy machine using overhead transparencies as my negative and getting poor results.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    Jane Linders

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