Before we’d had any planning meetings for this year’s Oklahoma City Thunder preview section, I was thinking blue.
I admit it. I like experimenting with pre-digital photo techniques. Whether it’s taking a plastic camera to cover college football games or using a 4×5 view camera with discontinued Polaroid film to make portraits of past and present football stars, I like trying something different. And for this year’s Thunder section, I wanted to print cyanotypes, a type of photographic print that dates back to 1842.
Cyanotypes are an analog, alternate photography process. Unlike most analog photography which is silver-based, cyanotypes use iron compounds to produce prints made of blue tones instead of black and white.
Since the Thunder’s main color is blue, I thought printing all-blue photographs was a cool way to illustrate our preview and then give it a unifying visual theme.
To produce a cyanotype print, you cannot enlarge the negative. Too much UV light is needed to make it work. Cyanotypes have to be made as contact prints where the negative being reproduced is placed directly on the exposed photographic paper, creating a picture the same size as the negative.
To make this project happen it was going to take a team effort. First, we needed pictures of the players. For that I turned to Chris Landsberger who was covering the Thunder’s annual media day, our best and often only opportunity to take portraits of the players. Chris, a portrait wizard, liked the cyanotype idea and agreed to let me take his work and print it in blue.
Once Chris had photographed his digital portraits, we needed large negatives to use for the cyanotype contact printing. The easiest way to turn digital photographs into large negatives is to use an inkjet printer and print the negative on transparency paper. Doug Hoke, our director of photography, owns a wonderful printer and agreed to print the negatives. Before the negative can be printed, however, the digital file must be inverted, flipped, have the tone adjusted to get the right density and then tinted.
Once we had the negatives prepared, Doug printed them on transparency paper.
Next, it was time for the chemistry in the cyanotype process. I combined solutions of Ferric ammonium citrate (green) and Potassium ferricyanide and then coated Bristol paper using a brush with the combined solution to make the paper sensitive to UV light. The brush strokes from coating the paper left each print with a unique border.
Once the paper dried, I took each negative and made contact prints in the sun. The negative sat sandwiched between the light-sensitive paper and a piece of glass to hold everything in place. After 10 minutes to an hour in the sun, depending on how bright it was outside, the paper was properly exposed and ready to reveal the image.
Next, the exposed paper was rinsed in cold water to remove the unexposed chemicals and bring out the blue image.
After 5 minutes of washing and then hanging to dry, the process was finished. I then photographed the cyanotype prints in our studio to get them back into digital form to go in the newspaper and online.
Could we have done all of this in Photoshop a lot quicker? Of course, but that’s no fun. And each print would not be unique.
Sometimes it’s more interesting to give up the ultimate control of the computer and surrender to chemistry, the sun and the border left behind by brush strokes.
I had a lot of fun making these prints with Chris and Doug. Here’s a gallery with more of the prints our team created.
And if you’re interested, here’s more detailed information about the cyanotype process.