During the recent MA Visual Arts: Fine Art Digital low-residency, Smriti Mehra and I, Matt Lee, led a cyanotype printing workshop with students in collaboration with the British Library. The workshop began with an introduction to the process and looking at examples of cyanotypes from the British Library collection, including reproductions of blueprint maps from the Indian Office records and Anna Atkins’s self-published book of Photographs of British algae.
The morning was spent exploring the British Library archive and creating collages from an assortment of printed negatives from the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership project collection. This rich and varied material included historical photographs, illustrations, maps, iconography, typography, patterns and textures. To cite a few examples, a striking portrait of a Meccan woman in bridal attire from 1887-1888, a strangely surreal illustration of a Waqwaq tree from a 17th century Persian manuscript and landscape photographs of a Central Persian trade route from 1901. Using this diverse archive as a starting point, the students worked intuitively and conceptually in response to the images, creating juxtapositions, patterns, narratives and incorporating the technique into their creative practices. The workshop was an opportunity to play with the material to explore meaning and form. The collages were then placed on top of the photosensitive paper and exposed under UV light in a darkroom. The prints were developed, washed and rinsed to reveal vivid Prussian blue monochromatic images, which were left to dry and darken over the next twenty-four hours.
The workshop was followed by a visit to the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership project in St Pancras. Here a team of photographers, conservators, translators and cataloguers work together to make collection items related to the history of the Gulf and Arabic science available online via the QDL portal. In the conservation studio, we were introduced to paper conservation, binding techniques and shown examples of collection items undergoing conservation treatment. In the imaging studio, students were shown the plethora of specialist equipment used by imaging technicians to photograph a range of items, including Arabic manuscripts, books, loose-leaf items, maps, photographs and vinyl records. Students then shared their cyanotype prints with British Library staff, who in turn shared some of the creative projects they have worked on during Hack Days, where the imaging team respond to this historical material across different contexts. A zine by Hannah Nagle examined data and gender inequality through the collection, an animation by Renata Kaminska drew attention to damage in one manuscript caused by insects and Darran Murray’s interactive photogrammetry project of an astrolabe quadrant. The workshop and this interaction opened up a dialogue with the students of how historic material may be accessed by different creative practitioners, in different ways, making it relevant and being a valuable resource to build ideas from.
The tour ended with a viewing of a rare book of original cyanotypes by Julia Herschel – ‘A handbook of Greek Lace Making’ published in 1870. A selection of cyanotype prints from the workshop were then photographed in one of the British Library’s imaging studios. The intention is to create a zine for possible inclusion in the British Library’s permanent collection.
For artists wishing to explore the British Library collections, their Flickr account offers open access to public domain images and encourages people to explore and re-use. Images can also be downloaded from the Qatar Digital Library, which contains collection items that relate to the Gulf Region. The British Library Labs also support creative projects that use collections in innovative and inspiring ways.
Course Leader, MA Fine Art Digital: Jonathan Kearney.