WORCESTER — In an age when digital dominates, it might come as a shock how many analog photographic processes there were — and are. Photographers still make daguerreotypes and platinum prints and, of course, gelatin silver prints. They still make cyanotypes, too. The format has a long and surprisingly diverse history, as “Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period” demonstrates to excellent effect. The show runs through April 24 at the Worcester Art Museum.
You likely don’t recognize the term cyanotype. But cyanotypes themselves are unmistakable, because of their predominant blueness. The best-known type of cyanotypes are architectural, the renderings known as blueprints. The astronomer Sir John Herschel invented the process, which requires only an iron-salts solution and paper.
Cyanotypes can be created either as photograms, by placing an object on treated paper, or photographically, as a positive print made from contact with a negative. Either way, no darkroom is necessary. Such simplicity made the process highly popular with amateurs during its heyday, 1880-1920. While most of the 75 items in the Worcester show come from that period, the earliest dates to 1854 and the most recent from 2014.
That earliest image, Anna Atkins’s study of a honey locust leaf and pod, shows how attractive the process can be. Delicacy combines with precision, thanks to the sharp contrast of botanical white revealed against Prussian blue. That blueness has a further effect, one that’s off-putting at first but on reflection quite winning. All photographs are a cheat, a two-dimensional rendering of three dimensions (four, if you count time). The chromatic oddity of cyanotypes announces their artifice from the get-go. The period charm of that blueness doubles as epistemological candor.
It can also summon up dreamscapes, as with Jesseca Ferguson’s pair of diptychs. They’re like flattened Joseph Cornell boxes. Again we find two dimensions doing the work of four, even if in this case it’s more play than work.
Although there are well-known names here — Edward Steichen, Edward S. Curtis, F. Holland Day, Christian Marclay (of “The Clock” fame) — the format is the star. Curators Nancy Kathryn Burns and Kristina Wilson have put together a show that’s surprisingly, and excitingly, varied. There are still-lifes, landscapes, portraits, abstractions, assemblages, even a nude. (No, the sitter doesn’t look cold.) There are medical images that are like blueprints of the body; postcards, something of a craze around 1900, and so easy to do that senders made 90 percent of them; and even a dress, by Annie Lopez. It’s slightly above the knee, with a scoop neck — not exactly casual, but definitely ruled out as evening wear.
Pride of place in “Cyanotypes” goes to Frederick K. Coulson (1869-1931), with 14 pictures. In their diversity, they reflect the show as a whole. Four potted plants have a silhouetted crispness worthy of a clinician. A man in overalls reading a book has the appeal of vintage Americana. Two portraits of Coulson’s sister — in one, sneaking a cigarette; in the other wearing the most preposterous hat this side of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” — bring together affection and irreverence in a way that can only be described as brotherly. An interior showing an 1898 Worcester Art Museum gallery exemplifies one of the exhibition’s nicer touches: multiple instances of cyanotypes with a local connection.
As the primary color with the coolest visual temperature, blue tends toward smooth surfaces. So you might expect a consistent sameness of texture. That’s another surprise “Cyanotypes” has to offer. An Arthur Wesley Dow still life of irises suggests such tactility it could be printed on fabric. In contrast, Mike Ware’s “Ficus, October 10, 1998” has a high-gloss finish that verges on the lickable.
CYANOTYPES: Photography’s Blue Period
At Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, through April 24, 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.orgMark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.