I started work on the “Gloomy Blooms” photo series in May 2020. The country had gone into Covid lockdown in March, and like many people, I was struggling to adapt to my new, more isolated life. I’m an introvert, and alone time is very important to me, but even introverts have our limits. The lockdown made me realize how much I depend on seeing my friends and family. Visiting with people online was some comfort, but it wasn’t enough. I had nowhere to turn but inward. That’s when I started to take the first photos that would develop into the “Gloomy Blooms” series.
The images in this series are cyanotypes. The cyanotype process was developed in the 1820’s, before the advent of silver-based photography (the common black and white images most of us are used to seeing). The cyanotype process doesn’t require a darkroom and doesn’t even require film or negatives. By mixing a few simple chemicals and applying them to any kind of paper, you can create light sensitive sheets. You can then place objects or plant materials directly on the sheets and place them in direct sunlight. Exposure time varies, from a few minutes in strong summer sun, to hours in less direct, winter light. You simply wash the paper in water once it’s been exposed, and an image will appear. As the paper dries, the image will grow more visible, and the blue of the paper will deepen. The blue color is created by the chemicals applied to the paper. Many people have seen cyanotype images of ferns, flowers, and other plants.
My process is a little different. I first take photos of flowers using my iPhone. I transfer the images to my computer, and using free software, I strip the color from the images, adjusting exposure and contrast as necessary. The result is a black and white photo. Using free online software, I turn the positive images into negatives, which I print on simple printing paper. I place these paper negatives face down on an unexposed sheet of cyanotype paper and expose them in the sun. Once the image is set, I wash the cyanotypes and then immediately place them in a bath of hot black tea and ground turmeric. The traditional blue tones are replaced by brown and yellow tones. These are the “Gloomy Blooms” photos.
The photos, for me, are a form of small, controlled expression. I started to make them in reaction to the lockdown, and to everything in the world that I could not control, that I had no say in. I could control the production of these images (but only to a degree), and making them has given me an outlet for the free-floating fear that many of us have experienced since the advent of Covid. These are my small moments of beauty, small moments of peace.
William Reichard is a writer, editor, photographer, and educator. His seventh poetry collection, Our Delicate Barricades Downed, was published by Broadstone Books in 2021. Reichard’s cyanotypes will be featured in a show at the Friedli Gallery in Saint Paul, MN in January 2023.