Cyanotyping the Family Snaps

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Jayne Knight, doctoral candidate in the history of photography, offers inspirational tips on how to keep researching while staying at home.

As a PhD student researching popular photography at the National Science and Media Museum, I have been finding ways to stay connected to my research from home while the collections I am researching are closed. Seeking the silver lining during the enforced lockdown, I have been making the most of the glorious sunshine in the garden by cyanotyping. This has involved digging out the family snaps to give them a new lease of life.

Fig.1. Members of my famiy in indigo blue. Photograph by Jayne Knight, images taken from family negatives.

Cyanotyping has always been a hobby of mine. As a process discovered by scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel in 1842, I have been continually inspired by the beautifully detailed indigo blue prints of Anna Atkins. Using light to impress botanical specimens and negatives on chemically treated paper retains its charm, time after time. Inspired by my current research into the history of the snapshot photograph, I decided to dig out the cyanotype chemicals and do something with a box of negatives.

Some time ago I gasped in horror at the prospect of a precious box of old photographic negatives being disposed of. My Grandad claimed they had “no further use.” While he has done a wonderful job preserving the family snaps – aged 96 he can still recall the story behind many of them – as a photo historian, I wanted to breathe new life into the negatives.

Fig.2. The box of negatives. Photograph by Jayne Knight.

Assorted in age, size and condition, the negatives are indiscriminately kept in their original processing envelopes, still revealing many details of their material history (Fig.2). Some negatives were printed and ended up in the family photo albums but others seem never to have been printed at all despite being designed for reproduction. One box, containing thousands of negatives, presents bountiful opportunities for cyanotype printing.

Many of the negatives were from the interwar period, when industry giants such as Kodak successfully put cameras in the hands of many. Typical Kodak customers, my Nan’s family took their ‘Brownie’ camera to the seaside, on family holidays, and captured weddings, fun in the garden and wartime farewells. It was a selection of these interwar negatives that I chose to print.

Fig.3. The negatives exposing on chemically sensitised paper. Photograph by Jayne Knight.

Assembling my negatives on chemically-prepared paper, I secured them in a frame. Placing them out in the sun, I watched them expose (Fig.3). Rinsing off the prints in a tray, the emergence of the positive image filled me with joy. Hanging them to dry, the image strengthens in colour, becoming fixed for permanence (Fig.4).

Fig.4. Just exposed and hung to dry. A selection of snaps of my Nan, Grandad, Aunt and my Dad as a child. Photography by Jayne Knight, images taken from family negatives.

In many cases it is the first time that the images have been seen as a positive print. Details unnoticed in the negative come to light. Tonal qualities, in shades of indigo, give the print depth . Printing the positive image brings me closer to the moment captured by the photographer. Fashions, seaside locations and long lost relatives come to life. This will not be the last of the negatives’ revival. When lockdown is lifted, I will take the cyanotype prints to my Grandad to find out the stories behind them and to remind him that an old negative will always have a use.

I am fortunate that my area of research, popular photography, is embedded into everyday life. Photography exists in the home, from family photo albums and shoe boxes of prints and negatives to thousands of digital files and social media inputs. Inspiration is plentiful.

Volunteering: where might the ‘positive feedback loop’ take you?

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Lisa Hinkins, currently in her final year studying BA (Hons) History of Art and Design, gives an update on the diverse volunteering opportunities available via the University of Brighton  – and the unexpected places they have led…

In my first year of the BA (Hons) History of Art & Design course, I was asked if I could write for our blog about my experiences of volunteering. In it I mentioned the ‘positive feedback loop’ from my experience of coordinating volunteers at a Scrap store I ran, to my volunteering with Photoworks and Fabrica. Since then, I have participated many hours of learning and creating within my voluntary roles. On the way, I have met and made friends with many different people. Fabrica has been a refuge from many stresses and an outlet to experiment in writing for their Response magazine, create workshops and interact with the public in Front of House duties for exhibitions.

The initial few months of volunteering within the arts gave me the confidence to apply for a job at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery as a casual gallery explainer. For nine months, I was part of a team working in the Fashion Cities Africa exhibition, following which I worked with the Constable and Brighton exhibition. While engaged with the Museum, it has led to some other opportunities within the organization, which have been very interesting and invaluable learning experiences. So, my volunteering led to a positive outcome of a paying job.

Not only have I been able to earn money from something I enjoy, I continued my volunteering during my second year of study. Somehow, I managed to rack up over 90 hours of volunteering! It has been important to keep in contact with Kat (neé Turner) Saunders, Volunteering Project Officer for Active Student Volunteering Services, as she was able to ensure I received continued opportunities with Photoworks, which included creating a workshop during 2016’s Brighton Photo Biennial at the Ewen Spencer installation at Fabrica. Another benefit of keeping registered with the university Volunteering Services, is that your volunteering hours are officially recognized by it, so for the past two years I have received certificates recognizing my dedication.

In June, I was completely taken aback when Kat Saunders sent me an invitation to attend the Mayoral reception for University of Brighton student volunteers, part of celebrations for National Volunteers’ Week. Around twenty students were invited from across the Brighton campuses to the reception in acknowledgement of the many hours of dedicated service in organizations across the city. It was an honor to be asked and to represent the City campus. It was also a great excuse to eat far too much cake in the Mayor’s Parlour in the Town Hall! And it was a delight to meet the exuberant Mayor, Mo Marsh, who took time to speak to all of us about our experiences and thank us.

A week later our group photograph with the Mayor was featured inside The Argus newspaper. Rather embarrassingly the callout for students to send a few words about their volunteering experiences, for the article seemed to result in only mine being published, but Fabrica director Liz Whitehead was truly delighted that her organization got a mention in my statement.

That positive feedback loop has endured: volunteering, job, celebration, recognition, continued volunteering. I would encourage my fellow students to sign up with Active Student Volunteering Services. It has been one of the best things I have done during this journey through my degree.

 

#hoadontour Photo Competition

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Over the summer our undergraduate students took part in a light-hearted photo competition sharing snippets of the exciting things they got up to over the break!

We promised the entrant with the most inspiring/original photo a year’s membership to either the Tate or the V&A – so not a bad prize for tagging your holiday snaps! Photographs were uploaded to Instagram and Twitter and with so many great entries we invited Professor Francis Hodgson to judge them.

Francis lectures in the Culture of Photography here at the University of Brighton and as an internationally recognised critical writer on photography we thought he was well-placed to scrutinize our entries.

Here’s what he had to say:

I find that a number of pictures competed in my mind for prizes, and several could be listed as ‘honourable mentions’. But I am asked to name three.

Kane Preston's Entry

Kane Preston’s Entry: “Ancient Greek statue with my brother filling in the gap.”

In third place is a pleasant study where a live person gives animation to a sculptural figure and by extension to the whole business of ‘old rocks’. A little tiny moment of performance is enough to make us see that a visit to the museum was fun and engaging. The near-accuracy of the match of two scales, of person and of sculpture, makes a visual pun, reinforced by the plausible ‘sky’ of the background.

All in all, a quick light way to load a photograph to make it memorable and meaningful. Congratulations to Kane Preston (Museum and Heritage Studies).

In second place, is a simple view of the Albert Dock in Liverpool in which the architectural masses counter each other nicely between old and new, former working buildings against new living spaces. Two strong dark reflective masses make the structure of the picture– water closer to the camera and a pair of dark buildings angled across the upper half of the image. Beyond these a number of well‐known towers and domes cluster as though competing for their new position in the re-shaped city. A few ships convey a suggestion of stilled maritime activity.

Alice Hudson's Entry

Alice Hudson’s Entry: “Fab weekend in Liverpool #albertdock”

A very brightly coloured lifebelt at the right front not only adds a solid anchor to the whole composition but can be read as the metaphorical indicator of the rescue of a once‐derelict area that has successfully taken place through generations of reclamation. Congratulations Alice Hudson (Fashion and Dress History).

Sarah Geissler's Entry

WINNER – Sarah Geissler’s Entry: “Archive tour at #Beamish”

In first place, a view in the archive of the Beamish Museum in County Durham. In this view, the mere presence of a modern set of steps is enough to make the picture. The bulk of the view is in a muted near monochrome, entirely appropriate to the holdings of the museum. But the vibrant blue step ladder in the foreground makes all the difference. By that gesture, viewers are reminded that the museum is not merely a frozen repository, but is a working community assembling a number of skilled activities around the shared common purposes of the museum. It is only because our attention has been held by that bright blue slash of the steps that we move further into the picture able to distinguish the elements that are not at all as ‘olde worlde’ as they appear and that we might not have noticed otherwise: archival box files, plastic crates, an electric clock, security grille and soon. The entirely contemporary powder‐coated blue metal structure was enough to lead us into a picture which is in fact quite a neat play on the two functions of the museum, to engage the new in the preservation of the old. Congratulations to Sarah Geissler (Fashion and Dress History), for making a proper little photograph from the simplest of elements in front of her.

If you want to view all the #hoadontour entries just search the hashtag on Twitter and Instagram!