For those of us used to seeing photographs in black and white, sepia or color, the cyanotype, or blueprint, comes as a surprise. The result of a printing process discovered by Sir John Herschel in 1842, cyanotypes provide a simple developing process using two chemicals in a photosensitive solution that can be applied to paper or other material. A positive image can be produced by exposing the material to sunlight. When the paper is flushed with water after exposure, the Prussian blue salts remain in the paper giving the print its intense blue color.
Although by far the bulk of the Brooklyn Collection’s photographs are silver gelatin prints, two collections – one of them recently acquired—contain cyanotypes. One of the collections, nameless until two seconds ago when I decided to call it the Subway Construction Collection, from the years 1903 -1917—contains images of scenes that are similar to each other (though not identical) using three different processes: silver gelatin, platinum print and cyanotype—affording the viewer an unusual opportunity for comparison. By several different photographers, these 8 x 10 prints—large for a cyanotype—were originally produced for the Public Works Administration. The platinum print has an impeccable matte finish which can only be appreciated when the photograph is removed from its Mylar sleeve. To me, the cyanotypes have an unmatched beauty and immediacy. On flimsy pages that might have been cut from a notebook, the images have the quality of a jotted memorandum.
Construction machinery, horses dragging huge loads, people wearing hats and spats—the collection shows long views of streets that still exist today, though changed in a thousand ways. And as always there is humor where you don’t expect it: the side of a building advertises the “Long Island Bird Store: dogs, cats, poultry pigeons other pet animals boarded.” And then the kicker—“ Taxidermist.” And in case you’d rather not waste money on stuffing your pet, right above that is “J.W. Hodges, Meat Market.” That building stood on the site that is now the Midtown Florist and Nursery next to BAM, a site that was at one time eyed for Brooklyn’s Library for the Visual and Performing Arts—one of several Brooklyn dreams that remained just that. The Subway Construction photos reveal the city as palimpsest more thoroughly and consistently than any other group of images we have—and they do it in blue.
The other blue group is by Julius Wilcox. Books will be written about Wilcox, who was a journalist, editor, and man of many interests. Of his cyanotypes he writes, “When these photos were made—1892—photography was comparatively crude. ‘Developing papers’ were hardly known and positives were obtained by the old printing out processes. For these proofs—as memoranda of pictures designed only for lantern slides—I used an easy method, blue prints, but made on an exceptionally good line of paper.” Wilcox also photographed the built environment, but the great cyanotypes in this collection, comparable to the work of Jacob Riis, show working class and homeless people--the quick and the dead--in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. I doubt that lantern slide companies would have used his photographs of bodies in the the morgue, or of drunks lolling on a bench, or of children in Silver Dollar Smith’s saloon at midnight.
Authorities do say that cyanotypes that have faded through exposure to light will regenerate when stored in the dark, which if true, would make the cyanotype the superhero of processes, with powers beyond anything in the black and white world.