June 24, 2014

‘…no one but a vandal would print a landscape in red, or in cyanotype.’
Peter Henry Emerson, Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, 1889 [1]

Emerson’s treatise on the appropriate practice of photography sparked plenty of controversy in its day. But his scandalized response to brightly coloured landscapes, and in particular his disdain for the cyanotype, the blue anomaly of early photography, was generally shared. Nineteenth-century fashion favoured earthy toning techniques as a way of softening the starkness of black-and-white landscapes, and the cyanotype’s electric hue would have seemed outrageous for commercial portraiture. Prussian blue was established as an artist’s pigment well over a century before photography, and it’s hard to conceive of the history of painting without it (think of Hokusai’s The Great Wave, Kandinsky and Der Blaue Reiter, Picasso’s blue period). Yet we can easily imagine how unnatural the cyanotype’s bold tone must have seemed in photographic terms in the medium’s first decades.

With widespread use of colour photography a century off, the vivid process was ahead of its time, and as is often the case with invention, immediately at odds with the conventions of its era. Sir John Herschel, whose father discovered Uranus, chanced on the cyanotype in 1842, three years after the official announcement of the medium. [2] (Kodak’s Kodacolour, the company’s first colour negative process, was introduced exactly 100 years later.) Compared to the complexity of the daguerreotype and the calotype, the first and most enduring photographic processes, the cyanotype is basic: coat a piece of paper with two chemicals; dry it in the dark; arrange items on the surface; expose it to light; wash it in water to complete the chemical process, make it blue and fix the image. Photographic but camera-less, it can contact print negatives or make photograms from direct impressions with objects.

Anna Atkins quickly latched onto its capacity to collapse three-dimensions into delicately detailed two-dimensional traces. She took up the cyanotype with fervour and used it exclusively for illustrating and annotating her encyclopedic studies of British algae. Atkins printed and distributed volumes of her cyanotype impressions in 1843, nearly a year before William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, more often cited as the first photographically illustrated book, though whose came first is beside the point. [3] The crux is instead in the imaginative imperatives they represent, the sense of delight and excitement about photographic discovery at the time that they reflect.

Thomas Mailaender take sup this spirit of adventure and innovation. Though his ambitions are self-consciously artistic and sociological in a way Atkins’s were not, there’s a parallel in their mutual obsessions with close-looking, typological investigation and, of course, with the cyanotype itself. His use of the anachronistic process is part of a genuine fascination with the material and social histories of photography, from early techniques to the digital and networked image. His first series of cyanotypes reproduces photographs from a bank of found images gathered together under the banner of his ‘Fun Archive’.  Mailaender has been collecting images from the internet since 2000, well before Facebook and Flickr made image-sharing the compulsive habit it has now become, and draws on the expanding archive – soon to be made public via a website – for a range of projects. In much the same register as his The Night Climbers of Cambridge, which brought renewed visibility to an existing collection of images of men scaling historic buildings at night in the 1930s, the Fun Archive is a gesture of revealing of re-use, and of  testing the limits of the legibility of images in different forms and contexts.

The pictures in Mailaender’s archive are uncanny and surreal. Their familiar, even banal, humour is offset by the darkness of embarrassment and wry failure, or a by dreamlike disjunction in the juxtaposition of elements. The situations are hard to describe in words, in part because the circumstances they depict are unknowable and illogical: an impossibly small floating figure slam dunks a basketball into a net in which his whole body would fit, the ball an orb ten times the size of his head; a man crawls on hands and knees, eyes closed, with giant tortoise shell on his back; Jesus looks down from the cross, strung up on an urban power line; children smile out at us from inside what looks like a rabbit cage; failed do-it-yourself construction projects abound, precariously; a man holds a hand-written sign that reads ‘WILL EAT FOR FOOD’. Replete with visual puns and cognitive dissonance, their surface humour gives way to a deeper, more uncomfortable smile.

Though most of Mailaender’s images operate outside the bounds of the kinds of landscapes Emerson had in mind, there is an inherent vandalism in any kind of appropriation.  Printed out, rephotographed to make a negative and finally reproduced as cyanotypes, the surreal qualities in the images are heightened by the faded impressions of their ‘original’ digital files, and by the hazy smudge of blue that illuminates them. They’ve have been taken from the real or virtual worlds where they were found and, perhaps the greater offence, transformed into unique, authored prints. But Mailaender understands the stakes of the heist, and the ironies too. His playful renderings add in decorative patterns and photograms that evoke conventions from different periods and modes, from Atkins’s plant specimens and Man Ray’s modernist experiments, to the lighthearted flourishes that might decorate personal photo albums. His curious patchwork of photography’s forms and practices is a kind of vandalism as invention.

The Longest Cyanotype in the World blows things up. To make it, Mailaender got hold of the longest roll of paper currently industrially produced, at 10 x 1.5 meters it’s one tenth the length of a football field, or the maximum distance at which Bluetooth devices can stray and still maintain a connection. He built a custom darkroom for it, fitted out with salvaged sun-tanning lamps to better control the evenness of exposure. Mailaender is conscious and bemused by the Supersized-Guinness-Book-of-World-Records mentality that inflects contemporary life and contemporary art, and the scale is intentionally, even comically outsized. ‘Size matters!’ he exclaims sincerely. If the scale relates to the expanding dimensions of art photography and the market that values and expects it, the conception of it offers a different kind of expansiveness through his performance of the labour around the work’s elaborate production.

Mailaender’s film, made with a hand-held camera, takes us through the making of, with all the signals of amateur videography. Unsteady panning, shadows of the camera operator, blurs of fuzzy darkness in the corner are emphasize the transparency of labour that also inflects the surface of the image. As the camera pans across the lowly-lit table, we see the scattering of items and negatives arranged haphazardly and ready to be impressed by light. The objects are all tools from Mailaender’s studio: hammer and nails; light bulbs; rubber gloves; clothes pins and hangers; a jumble of wire; a lone spoon. Various negatives, scattered at awkward angles and intervals among the debris of implements, show Fun Archive images of DIY projects – heroic in effort if failed in practice. Confetti, coins and coloured drinking straws give the whole tableau a celebrational air, more birthday-party banner than high art. The longest part of the film shows the exposure itself, the latent image appearing as we watch, lime green under fluorescent lamp light. And, finally, the industrial spray of the hose washes and fixes the image, Mailaender’s running shoes coming in an out of the frame as he walks around the red plastic sheet underneath; part Jackson Pollock, part car-wash attendant.

Mailaender in fact considers the film the central element; an ephemeral recreation that repositions the finished print as the byproduct and documentation of the activity of its making. Like Atkins’s and Talbot’s books, it becomes a record of an industrious mind working out what photography can be and testing the spheres of visual knowledge it might impact. Mailaender looks back to a time when the social capacities of the medium were still unclear, when its methods and functions – technical and conceptual; as document or art – were vital questions, and when every exposure had the spark of experiment. Photographic conventions depend upon the integration of technology and context. Certain discoveries and methods may have held sway longer than others, but photography’s invention and re-invention, as Mailaender’s giant cyanotype reminds us, is experimental, social and perpetual.

The cyanotype is the perfect foil for the idea of reinvention. Its simple method, highly legible contrast and durability made it, decades after Herschel’s discovery, the first pervasive technique for photocopying. Institutionalized as a means of reproducing architectural plans in particular, it has a different cultural history under its second name, the blueprint. Synonymous with paradigm or model, in this guise it embodies the prototypical framework for a structure or pattern too immense to grasp without a guide. Mailaender’s blueprint addresses a design flaw in the history of photography, which so often accounts only for images sanctioned as art. Other photographic histories from the last century, drawn from newspaper and magazines, police and government records archives, and family albums are slowly seeping into the official story. But the conditions of commercial value and authorship – the terms of art photography – are always in tension with the open and obtainable platforms for the vast majority of circulating photographic images.

Mailaender’s The Longest Cyanotype isn’t an alternative history so much as a marking up of the plans. It points out, rather joyously, the way that these narratives have always played off one another, and delights in photographic conventions of all kinds.  Atkins, as Carol Armstong writes ‘wandered into a photographic and scientific cul-de-sac, and liking it there, stayed to entertain herself’. [4] Mailaender too is happily lost in obsession. That both making and looking can be deeply pleasurable pursuits is another part of photography too often forgotten. Mailaender reminds us of the joy in the act; like the men in The Night Climbers of Cambridge, he lightly scales historical architecture and smiles broadly for the camera from the top.

 


Vandalism as Invention: Thomas Mailaender’s The Longest Cyanotype in the World

by Sara Knelman

NOTES:

[1]P.H. Emerson, Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (New York: E. & F. Spon, 1889), 196.
[2]For a detailed account of the cyanotype, see Mike Ware, Cyanotype: The history, science and art of photographic printing in Prussian blue  (Bradford: National Museum of Photography Film & Television), 1999.
[3]Larry Schaaf brought belated recognition to Atkins’s work in Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms by Anna Atkins (New York: Aperture, 1985).
[4]Carol Armstrong, Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book, 1843-1875 (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1988), 187.


CYANOTYPES – 14, Rue Popincourt, 75011 Paris, until the 28th of June, 11am-7pm.

CYANOTYPES- Roman Road, Boulevard de Waterloo, 26 B-1000 Brussels, until the 28th of June, 11am-6pm and by appointment.