Cyanotypes on paper, 2011-2016
Tom Fels’ cyanotype series stem from his lengthy engagement with a single subject: a tree in his garden and its dappled shadows. Previously he had addressed these through pencil drawings and photographs. The discovery of the availability of large-scale cyanotype paper, a medium to which he had been alerted through his work with photographs of the 19th century, took the experience in a new direction.
Fels’ cyanotypes are cameraless photographs, popularly called “sun prints” or “shadow prints.” There is no negative; each is unique. The prints are life-sized, 1:1 scale renderings of their natural subject matter obtained directly, outdoors, from bushes and trees. The Arbor, Catalpa, and other of Fels’ series are at once both empirical and romantic. The result of a technical process dependent on light and chemistry alone, these prints can be regarded on one level as simply unmanipulated records of the organic world. On another they are richly suggestive, capturing a deeply evocative sense of motion and form. A review in the Boston Globe observed that they “evoke the touch and movement of a friendly breeze.”
The cyanotype is an early process of great simplicity and unique color – a deep blue. Typically, the method has been employed to produce silhouettes – of leaves, for example, as in the botanical illustrations of the pioneer British photographer Anna Atkins (1799-1871) – but the same process was also used to make photographic prints from negatives, as well as architectural blueprints.