Cyanotypes & The Graves of Poets

Standing in the cold lifeless air of Westminster Abbey, surrounded by marble morbidity, the good and great and privileged interred at every turn, monarchs at the head of the table and poets consigned to a dim corner, and there, amid the flag stones of the nave lie the mortal remains of Charles Darwin, a three lined epitaph for the founder of the theory of modern evolution, we need little explanation of who he is or what he contributed, your attention soon wanders, you glance at the neighbouring grave, so close they could be related, the Latin inscription reveals little and you could be forgiven for wandering off in search of  dead poets and princesses.

The obscure tomb suspiciously close to that of Darwin’s is that of Sir John Herschel, astronomer, biologist, chemist, and mathematician. He was a mentor and source of inspiration for Darwin. Herschel came from good stock, his father discovered Uranus, and the family’s contribution to astronomy is immeasurable. Sir John married his cousin and had twelve children, he was a Polymath.

Portrait of Sir John Herschel by Julia Margaret Cameron April 1867. Whatever advances digital photography has afforded us I still aspire to produce images of this calibre

When we consider the origins and invention of photography it’s usually Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre that spring to mind but John Frederick William Herschel is as, if not more important. Herschel gave us the term photography and gave us the photographic meaning of negative and positive and his discovery of using sodium thiosulphate as a solvent for silver halides, producing what we know as fixer or hypo which allowed Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre to make permanent the images they were creating in those heady days of the mid-nineteenth century.

My early experiments in Lumen printing using antique Bulgarian photographic paper.

Importantly Herschel invented the Cyanotype the process that gave us blueprints used primarily for technical drawing. A simple process of using a combination of iron compound coated paper being exposed to UV light then washed. Sir John introduced family friend and fellow botanist Anna Atkins to the process who created a series of the most beautiful images of algae and other plants, she is regarded as the first female photographer and produced the first-ever book of photographs.

During the first Covid confinement I decided it was time to experiment with Cyanotypes as part of my slow photography movement, probably not the same buzz in the Home Counties as that of the antics of Hershel and Atkins but never the less.

Work in Progress-multi-tasking clearly a bonus

There really is no explanation for the creative process, I can only say that from time to time I find myself crawling around graveyards, is it the arrogance of being alive amongst the dead or a sense of my own mortality, I don’t know. I decided to collect the fallen leaves from the graves I found interesting and have them squirreled away.

 The Leaves of Poets had been a title jangling around my head for a while and with the pandemic pending I had to use what was easily at hand, so this first attempt has been made with leaves found on the grave of JRR Tolkein, and I do think one image in particular has an air of Middle Earth about it.

Leaves that have so many symbolic meanings are great subjects but not the easiest when working with Cyanotype or Lumen printing, the translucence of petals does work better, so you sit there in the mud contemplating the shapes of shedded shade. It’s all part of the mindful approach to slow photography.

Fallen leaves rescued from the grave of JRR Tolkein

Creating Cyanotypes is a simple process, you can buy raw chemicals but with the growing popularity of camerless photography, kits are easily available online. You don’t need a darkroom or much in the way of photographic experience. I will prepare a PDF of full instructions of Cyanotype and Lumen printing and include a resource of further reading, leave a message in the comments section below or mail me.

These kits look pretty good-Click the image for details

Watch The Simple Cyanotype Mixtape via the link below

https://youtu.be/GXQXo35nBr4

Anna Atkins is a truly remarkable woman; her groundbreaking photography was more than just an exercise in the ascetic, it was a combination of her botanical scientific study, technical ability, and determination, but it is her love of the subject that make her simple blue and white images as beautiful today as they were a century and a half ago.

There does not seem to be many books available on Herschel or Atkins but this illustrated biography of Atkins looks pretty-click the image for details;

This is the only comprehensive biography on the fascinating genius of Sir John Herschel I could find-Click the image for details;

As I went in search of the unsung heroes of the origins of photography, a rabbit hole of revelation if ever there was one, I discovered the Herschel family home is in the same village as my late grandparents lived; Hawkhurst in Kent, just behind the Eight Bells pub where one night in my early twenties I got incredibly drunk with my Grandfather, the pub dates back to 1847 so there is every chance Sir John popped in for a cheeky pint, our paths missing by about a hundred and fifty years. And while we are on the people I have not met in pubs topic; both JRR Tolkein and I were regulars in the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, although sadly, not at the same time.  

Mindfulness, slow photography, and adventures with analog are all therapeutic experiments I will be pursuing more often and will be happy to help anyone else attempting similar projects and let me know if you are interested in a cheat sheet on getting started with Cyanotypes.

This is my favorite image from the first series, more pac-man than middle-earth but that is the curious thing about nature.

Should anyone be interested in purchasing the original artwork I may make them available via Ebay

Thank you for all for taking the time to read and do feel free to share on whatever platforms you are using.

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23 thoughts on “Cyanotypes & The Graves of Poets

  1. I enjoyed this post. You have so many interesting graves of famous people to visit. The closest celebrity from the past grave we have around here belongs to john Dillinger. I found the leaf you discovered at JRR Tolkin’s grave very middle-earthish.

  2. Thank you for your post. I played around with cynotypes, and another from of slow photography many years ago (I forget the name of it but the colors were sepia rather than blue). Your post brought me back to that time. It is such a fun creative process.

  3. Are you still in Istanbul, or have you gone back to England (which seems more likely, given the places you mention here)?
    I lived in Istanbul in 2006 and found it to be a fascinating place, especially since I lived in a working-class neighborhood inside the ancient walls.
    I’d like to know more about slow photography. Do some of your earlier posts deal with it?

  4. Very much enjoyed the post. I made a brief pilgrimage to the Eagle and Child to pay a little homage to Tolkien and Lewis. Not even sure what cyanotypes are. Off to wikipedia…

  5. I am looking forward to seeing more of your “blue period” The first time i saw one of these was in a small museum in Italy – a beautiful composition of gingko leaves. I must find my photo of the photo now.
    I am also intrigued by the fact that you search for inspiration at particular graves.

  6. Fabulous post. Thank you. I love that a lady produced the very first book of photographs. I have just ordered a copy of Atkins’ biography as a result of reading this. Fascinating and life enhancing stuff.

  7. I think Atkins’ work is beautiful and have wanted to have a go at cyanotypes ever since hearing about her, so am definitely interested in the pdf offer. Great post. Nice Middle Earth image too.

  8. Thanks John, another great post..a little different from many of your other posts. Yes, graveyards are some of my favourite places. I often find it strange that people think of them as dangerous, spooky, evil. I used to live next to Waverley cemetery in Sydney and cycled and walked through it daily, including in the middle of the night. I always found it beautiful and peaceful with its view out onto the Pacific Ocean and was widely used for picnics, RDVs, secret liaisons etc. My Great-great Aunt is buried there, along with her husband. It was considered a murder- suicide.

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