Prussian Blue and Pinhole Too!

Prof. Roy DeVille
Prof. Roy DeVille

Classes at LSUA are just about mid-way through the summer session and my thoughts are expectedly turning to the fall semester and upcoming classes. I will be teaching both art appreciation and art history as I normally do. This fall, I will be teaching two sections of photography, both beginning and advanced.  Film photography studio classes always explore the basic techniques from finding the subject and taking the picture through the processes of developing the print, mounting, and framing the finished photograph. This class approaches photography as one of the fine arts, and in so doing, I always like to teach some different techniques that are not often explored in film photography classes. This fall, my students will learn cyanotype technique and pinhole photography. Both of these methods are ancient, developing long before the invention of the camera. Both methods are used frequently and successfully today by fine arts photographers. So we have historical techniques that are as relevant today as at their beginning.


In the late 1830’s, British scientist, Sir John Hershel, began to explore the chemicals used in photography. He was interested in experimenting with ferric salts to create cyanotype photographs, mainly for use with scientific diagrams and blueprints. Hershel referred to these pictures as “photographs,”  taking the term from Johann von Maedler, rather than using the more common term of William Henry Fox Talbot,  “photogenic writing”.  Hershel also coined the terms positive and negative when referring to the exposure of a photograph.


The process of creating a cyanotype photograph is basically that the photosensitivity of ferric (iron) salts, reduced by light, to a ferrous state can combine with other salts to create an image. Hershel used either ferric chloride or ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide.  Beginning to study the combining and using of different chemicals in photography is often daunting to students, but this is actually a fairly simple process than can even be used in art projects with children.


By the mid-1840’s, cyanotype technique was used to produce prints of botanical specimens. Anna Atkins was the photographer who brought this procedure from a scientific (or industrial) process to fine arts photography. She is often labeled as the first female photographer.  Atkins (1799-1871) was a British botanist and photographer. Her scientist father provided her a well-rounded and thorough education in both the arts and sciences.


Through her father’s tutelage and their close friendship with Talbot, Atkins combined her skills in botany and photography to produce the first books of photographic images. Plant specimens were placed on light sensitized paper that, when exposed to sunlight, produced images.  In 1843, Atkins applied the cyanotype technique to creating photograms of her seaweed collection. The seaweed was placed directly on the cyanotype treated paper. Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was published in October of 1843, the first book of illustrated photographic images. By 1853, three volumes of Atkins’ cyanotypes had been published. Her process was simple, placing the chemical solution directly onto the surface paper and drying the paper in a dark location. The image was then placed on the paper and exposed to sunlight. The resulting image was white against the bright cyanotype Prussian blue.


Photographers in the past often found this bright blue background a distraction to the image itself, but contemporary photographers are returning to this process, finding in it a certain aesthetic appeal.  F.  Holland Day was an American photographer who worked in cyanotype technique. Interestingly, he was the first American to champion photography as one of the fine arts.  Betty Hahn has combined both the cyanotype process and hand needlework into her photographs. Her concept is that mechanically produced images can be aesthetically linked to age-old handcraft.


Pinhole technique is one of the most ancient photographic processes, used long before the advent of the camera. As early as 1021 CE, Persian scientist, Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham) wrote about the pinhole concept in his Book of Optics. Even Aristotle understood the concept of the camera obscura, or pinhole technique. Both East and West explored the use of pinhole to create images. Leonardo wrote of the camera obscura in his Codex Atlanticus.  In 1850, Scottish scientist, Sir David Brewster took the first camera photograph using the pinhole technique.


Pinhole technique requires a light-proof box with a small hole in one side. Light passes through the hole and projects an inverted image on the opposite side of the box. The smaller the hole the sharper the image, but of course making it dimmer. In ancient times, pinhole technique was used to capture the movement of the sun over long periods of time, known as solargraphy.  A pinhole camera can be bought or made from everyday materials.


I became interested in pinhole photography on a visit to my wife’s family in Florida. There I met pinhole photographer, Bob Willis, who was having great success in exhibiting and selling his work. Bob later came to Alexandria for an exhibit of his work in our University Gallery and a workshop with our students. Through Bob, I became acquainted with foremost pinhole photographer, Eric Renner. Renner, who lives and works in New Mexico, organized and founded “Worldwide Pinhole Day,” a massive yearly event featuring an exhibit of  thousands of works from artists throughout the world. Together with Nancy Spenser, the group, Pinhole Resource, was created. is their web site, promoting not only the art of pinhole photography but selling equipment as well. Eric Renner used to design and sell his own pinhole camera, a pricey but attractive piece of equipment.  I of course, bought one from him….an artist can never have too many artistic toys!  In consideration of the burden of “student poverty,” I will however, show my students how to make their own pinhole cameras!  Eric Renner has become actively involved in the New Mexico Museum of History, and in April of 2012, Pinhole Resource collected and donated to the Museum 6,000 pinhole photographs from over 500 artists around the world. This substantial addition to the existing collection has endowed the UNM Collection as one of if not the most complete collections of contemporary pinhole photography.  On April 26, 2014, the UNM Museum of History will open a Comprehensive Pinhole Exhibit in conjunction with “Worldwide Pinhole Day.”


This basic discussion of these two historical techniques will give the reader some idea about what the LSUA film photography students will be doing this fall. These courses are open to all, both university students and members of the community. If you are interested in pursuing these techniques or film photography in general, please contact the Office of the Registrar at LSUA. If you are an interested high school student, please talk to your art teacher or guidance counselor.  You can take these courses for dual credit before entering college.  All are welcome, but don’t procrastinate! There are only a limited number of studio seats and the classes fill up fast.  Our studio classes are stress-free and great fun!