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’.  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
P.H. Emerson, Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (New York: E. & F. Spon, 1889), 196.
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.
Larry Schaaf brought belated recognition to Atkins’s work in Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms by Anna Atkins (New York: Aperture, 1985).
Carol Armstrong, Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book, 1843-1875 (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1988), 187.
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