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Anthotypes and the art of letting go

These photographs made with photosensitive plant matter fade quickly, but you can catch them at the Rhode Island Center for Photographic Arts

Mary Kocol, “Portrait of an Artist with Hydrangeas," iris anthotype, 2021.Mary Kocol

PROVIDENCE — In the summer of 2019, photographers Jesseca Ferguson and Mary Kocol got together in Ferguson’s Fort Point studio kitchen to blend beets, spinach, and boiled red cabbage. They weren’t making a hearty borscht. They were preparing emulsions for anthotypes — photographs made with photosensitive plant matter.

Ferguson painted the emulsion on watercolor paper and set a positive transparency atop the treated paper and exposed it to the sun. Over days or weeks, an image would appear.

The environmentally sustainable anthotype method, originally developed in the 19th century, is having a renaissance. Kocol and Ferguson have organized “Making Pictures from Plants: Contemporary Anthotypes” at the Rhode Island Center for Photographic Arts.


Anthotypes fade quickly, and their transitory nature is key to much of the art here. Kocol and Ferguson exhibit digital reproductions of their own work, having scanned them at their deepest blushes — a bit of a cheat, although the rich hues suggest a romantic world of monochromatic possibilities in alternative photography.

John Opera, untitled, 2019, blueberry anthotype.John Opera

For “Four Dresses, Four Snowflakes (Propeller)” Francis Schanberger arrayed small dresses and doilies on paper painted with smashed purple irises. The piece feels at once ghostly and young; the shadow-like children’s dresses will slowly vanish, like youth. Elizabeth Ellenwood, who photographs coral reefs, makes anthotypes that echo the loss of reefs’ colors as they bleach to death in warming seas.

Jesseca Ferguson, “Lunar Landscape 6,” purple carnations anthotype, 2021.Jesseca Ferguson

Even artists using anthotypes in other mediums highlight their memorial quality. In Edd Carr’s brief, grainy, spinach-toned video animation “See Fox Run,” an anti-hunting activist cradles a slain fox.

Nettie Edwards used only items inherited from her beloved aunt to create anthotypes for “Grave Goods,” a series of digital photographs featuring assemblages she crafted for the exposure process. The objects to print, papers to print on, and weights and fasteners to secure them all became part of the art in a ritual of letting go.


Nettie Edwards, "Safety Pin on Coal Dealer's Receipt coated with Sweet Pea Emulsion, under glass paperweight,” 2020.David Dare Photography

Edwards’s “Safety Pin on Coal Dealer’s Receipt coated with Sweet Pea Emulsion, under glass paperweight” is a record of fading, and of the fullness of a life, and the fullness of a niece’s love. Nothing lasts forever. Anthotypes compel us to savor the deepest colors before they vanish.


At Rhode Island Center for Photographic Arts, 118 North Main St., Providence, through April 15.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at Follow her on Instagram @cate.mcquaid.