Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period at The Worcester Art Museum

F. Holland Day, Little Good Harbor, Maine, 1905-1912. Courtesy Worcester Art Museum

F. Holland Day, Little Good Harbor, Maine, 1905-1912. Courtesy Worcester Art Museum

In this major survey of the photographic process known as cyanotype, Nancy Burns, assistant curator at the Worcester Art Museum, and Kristina Wilson, associate professor of art history at Clark University, present an alternative photo history in a sea of blue. Initially criticized for its limited tonal palette, the cyanotype fell out of fashion in the 1920s only to be rediscovered in the 1970s by artists drawn precisely to that ethereal blue palette. By juxtaposing an array of traditional approaches with many stylistic innovations, the exhibition convincingly demonstrates there is nothing limiting about the process.

Take, for example, a small gem by Frederick Holland Day that transforms a coastal view of Maine into a soft muted turquoise palette. Like peering through a dense fog, we can make out the forms but not the details. This kind of Pictorialism really is better in blue. Nearby, a 20th-century life-size frontal X-ray reveals interior organs in varying shades of cobalt that resemble celestial star maps, recalling the “starstuff” the late astronomer Carl Sagan often referred to, the stellar elements in all of us.

Exposed by sunlight and developed in water, cyanotypes were a favorite of itinerant travelers, mapmakers, and architectural photographers in the 19th century. Midwestern landscapes by Henry Bosse and rural New England scenes by Arthur Wesley Dow are familiar, but a deep blue iridescent photogram of ocean currents by Meghann Riepenhoff made in 2013 is less so. She exposes her prepared pages underneath the waves, so light filters through moving sand, shells, and water currents. The resulting dark impression is similarly more expressive than descriptive, looping back to the Frederick Holland Day seascape.

Frederick K. Coulson, Coulson's Sister Smoking a Cigarette, February 10, 1895. Courtesy Worcester Art Museum

Frederick K. Coulson, Coulson’s Sister Smoking a Cigarette, February 10, 1895. Courtesy Worcester Art Museum

The exhibit also introduces the newly discovered and prolific Frederick Coulson (1869-1931). Son of the gardener of a prominent Worcester family, Coulson honed his cyanotype skills while training to become an architect. His portraits of family and friends reveal subtle ways members of the working class were breaking with tradition at the turn of the century, beginning to forge their independence. In one, his sister clandestinely smokes a cigarette, and in another, a worker dressed in coveralls, sits at leisure to read a book.

Not a single cyanotype is included in Beaumont Newhall’s seminal History of Photography, but co-curators Burns and Wilson give us a roomful of reasons to reconsider a more comprehensive picture that includes blue among the brown, black, and white.