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Annie Pike's Celestial Cyanotypes


First, a Word about Cyanotypes

Photography isn’t new. The thought of capturing an image and making permanent copies has been around a long time, but until the Frenchman Joseph Nicephore Niépce captured View from the Window at Gras in 1826, any captured image was transitory. Louis Daguerre partnered with Niépce and developed the Daguerreotype and published his “how to do it” manual in 1839. The Daguerrotype, as revolutionary as it was, could not be reproduced. It was a “one off” process. like Frederick Scott Arthur’s tintype which came along in 1850.

The brass ring of reproducible images went to William Henry Fox Talbot’s Calotype in 1840. Using sensitized paper, Talbot created a paper negative from which a positive could be produced in numbers. Even then, the Calotype didn’t stand the test of time because with repeated exposure to light the image slowly faded.

Then came Sir John Herschel who, you will recall, discovered hyposulphite as a permanent “fix” in 1839. With his invention of the Cyanotype in 1842. Herschel found a way to reproduce copies of his notes on astronomy using a non-silver process which became the foundation of the 20th century “blueprint.”

Photographers are loath to leave things alone. If the Cyanotype could be used to reproduce copies of handwritten notes, then it could be used to produce copies of anything which could act as a negative. Rocks, ferns, leaves, and feathery laces all worked well, as did algae and bird feathers.

The Cyanotype has withstood the test of time. Used for many years before computers in making blueprints for architects and construction workers, it’s a favorite of photographers wanting a process which requires few chemicals and a minimum of equipment.

Annie Pike is at the forefront of Cyanotypers. She has exhibited her work in local galleries, and treated the 2017 Al Weber Photographers’ Rendezvous to an exuberant display of work ranging from small works, to a ten yard silk piece stretching the length of four long tables.

Enjoy Annie’s discussion of her art in this email interview with Anthony Mournian. When you’ve finished reading the interview, take a look at Malin and Gary Fabbri’s one minute movie about Cyanotype.

Annie Pike's Celestial Cyanotypes

Ann Pike at USCUMB workshop with Holly Roberts. ©Ted Orland, Image: Collagraph with ink painting over Cyanotype

Annie: I got interested in astronomy as a result of doing "Einstein's Brain in a Jar,” then going on a class field trip with combined astronomy and geology. The geology part was in rock latin and I turned off. The astronomy part was so exciting I caught the bug and started taking the instructor's astro-photo class. Then in time all his classes. When I did actual (real?) photography I said my landscapes were inner landscapes. So now I'm doing that with the Universe. Cyanotypes on silk seem like a good way to capture nebulosity. I've wanted to combine the cyanotypes with printmaking and after taking a fabric (http://www.tobinwkeller.com/Scarves.html) screen printing class I asked the instructor —Tobin Keller—if he would mentor me. Now, for the last two summers I've worked with him, at his studio.

Tobin has helped with all the fabric part, the dying, steaming and discharging. Last spring I was able to do a small gallery installment using the pieces.

On the cyanotype: I coat the silk, painting it on with foam brushes using BFK (paper) under the fabric. I blow dry it and then roll it up. Then, I use the College's large film developing area floor putting Oriental decorative papers on the coated silk. After every thing is placed on the fabric, I clamp and wrap it and have at least four other students help carry it out to the art department quad area to expose for at least an hour in the sun. Then back inside to process in that same film processing area. When doing 30 feet (10 yards) I coat and expose only a quarter of the length at a time.

I use the Formulary's two bottle cyanotype because it is so easy to use. Those bottles last me a long time.

AFM: Out of which part of the sky did you drop? What took you to the point in the universe , I.e., the floor of the college darkroom where, and when you began to produce your Cyanotypes on silk?

Annie: Way far back I have a BA in liberal arts from Chapman College. Chapman at the time I attended was not into giving a degree in Fine Art. That was my major however and has been since junior high. Due to the Reagan era budget cuts I could not get into a master program and just started taking photo workshops through UC Santa Cruz extension studying with Wynn Bullock, Al Weber, Ruth Bernhard and others.

I used to have in my artist statement (when it was more about my photography)that photography was in my DNA. Both my grandparents had camera and did their own darkroom work at the turn of the century—the 1900s. My maternal grandfather was a photo engraver—I guess I got inky fingers from him.

When darkroom photography more or less died (for some of us), and papers were discontinued, and digital was starting, I found I could not operate a computer printer. In a mixed media class, Tobin (funny how time circles around) suggested I take printmaking from Robynn Smith who teaches at Monterey Peninsula College (MPC.)

That started my becoming a printmaker. Still, off and on I've taken photography classes at Cabrillo College in Aptos. They have a most amazing darkroom set up with some enlarger rooms bigger than my bathroom! Two large sink areas for processing film and the needed smaller film loading rooms. In the summer when they do a four to six week "Open Darkroom" program.

“Mind in the Universe”, Spite bite etching with lift ground etching.©Ann Pike

Installation Show, MPC Spring 2017 showing both three cyanotypes, including cyanotype over red dyed silk, Cyanotypes on gesso board on right,side ©Ann Pike

The idea is all past photo students can use the darkroom. Great deal! No instruction, you just do your own thing.There is a gal who comes there and does tintypes.

Now my thing is cyanotype. This started about four or five years ago when another gal and I wanted to work with silk. I picked silk because it’s transparent. Like looking through layers of sky. All that nice blue. We had both taken Martha Casanave's alt-photo class the spring before that summer and wanted to try fabric. I bought a bunch of Thai Silk (good silk fabric resource) scarves in a variety of sizes. We started small and worked our way up to larger scarves. Each summer I've moved up in size.

MPC had a summer workshop about seven or eight years ago on installation print making given by Prawat Laucharoen. When everyone was fighting for space in the gallery for their installation, I looked up at the ceiling, and saw all that unwanted and unclaimed space.

We did not have a lot of time and ceilings in galleries are large, so that idea went on hold. Now I'm still checking out ceilings. And, making the work larger and larger. As of now I have two cyanotypes on silk, one chiffon and one habotai (thin Chinese silk) that are 30 feet long. I also have two of the same mix that are 7 yards long. This shorter combo has had screen printed dyes added and was part of my "trial" installation in the student gallery at MPC last spring.

AFM: Tell me something more about your astrophotography. Not so much exposure times or equipment used, but how you choose your subjects and where you go to find clear skies and dark spaces.

Annie: I've done most all my astro photography and dark sky viewing with the professor at Cabrillo, Dr. Rick Nolthenius, head of the Astronomy Department. He offers field trips to dark sky areas such as Soda Lake and Mono Hot Springs.

I'm sort of the second cook and dish washer on the trips. Along with being a credited field class with students, he invites all the astronomy buddies to come along and share their large scopes. Off and on during the year The more serious of the students and those astronomers head to near by dark sky locations to test equipment, view stars and do field work.

We go to nearby Fremont Peak. Cabrillo also has an observatory and some times we use its camera. I'm more or less a star groupee. When I did the exposure at Mission San Antonio I had a lot of help from Stephen Johnson. This October in New Mexico we had a camera demo on how to use our camera to capture the Milky Way. That was more or less a first for me. Karen Howard and I both got new cameras with lens up to the challenge and we tried our hands at doing more dark sky images along the way to King City.

AFM: You are comfortable camping, I know, but I wonder about which parks, which mountain peaks or desert spaces you find give you the best opportunities.

Students attending lecture in Cabrillo College observatory ©Ann Pike

Annie: Red Rock Canyon in the Mojave is great. We like some of the BLM land near Pinnacles. A really good repeat spot is Carrizo Plains. We don't use the campground but camp on the road beyond it on the side of the hill. I think it is only populated during the wild flower time of year. 

AFM: What gave you the idea to work on silk, or other material? Why did you choose fabrics over paper? Could you have used, have you used roll paper such as butcher paper for large works?

Annie: I still do work on paper and in fact use paper under my silk pieces to get a "two for". I like the drape of silk and the transparency. And, because I want it to hang, it is lightweight. Mostly it is transparent. And it has nebulosity.

Veil Nebula ©Ann Pike

AFM: What does an artist do with multiple works on silk, each of which is 10 yards long? Unless you live in a mansion, space is limited. Do you sell your work; if so, when and where?

Annie: Fortunately when not hanging they take up little space. I'm learning to roll them. Some are still in Tobin's studio which is large. Some have not yet been steamed. The dye process takes steaming and he has that equipment. After the last 30 foot chiffon piece I decided that was that, so my very last piece that I brought to King City this year is a dyed piece, then discharge printed and dye printed.

AFM: Do you have, can you make, photos of a work in progress? If you were to make photographs of you at work, (making something less heroic than ten yards long) can you send me about seven? I'd like to show the outlines of the process, not the details. Think of this part of the article as an illustrated story of "how to do it."

Annie: I don't have any photos of us doing the printing. Since this summer, two of us worked on this, one of us could have made so photos. Oops! I did take some progress photos. I'm giving you two or three of those. One is a detail. One shows the scale. The tables are over 21 feet long, so the fabric had to hang up on the end. I worked in two halves. I have a scarf or two that needs more help, so if you can wait a week or so, maybe Tobin will allow me to print on one of those and take some photos. He has been wonderful.

I thought the work needed to go further than the cyanotype. I've always thought that. See my website:


The photo at the top of page one was taken by Ted Orland at a workshop we had with Holly Roberts. The image is a cyanotype made from a transparent printing plate that I then inked and printed. In the workshop I did an application of more ink by hand, more or less painting it on. I feel that etching ink over the cyanotypes is just not the way to go. Makes them sort of dead. Before putting the dyes on the silk cyanotypes, I started screen printing on the paper ones and do like that look. The paper print I've included is one of the "left overs" from my silk coating so that is why the cyanotype is so brushy and splattered. It was also one of my steps into the screen printing over cyanotype.

Cyanotype on BFK with screen printing ©Ann Pike

Einstein's Brain in a Jar

It all started with Einstein's brain in a jar. I heard this on the radio as I was walking out of the room. His brain ended up in a jar because when he died the coroner took it out of his body, then cremated him as was his wish. The coroner took the brain home. In a jar! His kid apparently went to school and bragged, “We have Einstein's brain in a jar. “The science community found out and they started taking his brain apart.

The stars, the universe expanding with Einstein's theories. Not my Seven yard cyanotype with screen dye printed images mother's astronomy. Not the one of my early schooling. Like Hubble's theories, our universe is expanding.

Seven yard cyanotype with screen dye printed images  ©Ann Pike

I think, however, most of the artaround me looks more to the cultures and the cosmology of the ancient cultures for the answers than to science of today. We’re still looking back to the images of times when the earth was the center of the universe, with a flat sky and earth; God is in the heavens and all and the devil in place below. The science and church in agreement. While looking on the Internet for images of sun spots and gravitational fields, I discovered that Galileo had drawn sun spots. Following links, I found Galileo’s Moons. Galileo used an early telescope to make the drawings. He turned his telescope around and found it would enlarge small things on earth. His contemporary, Francesco Stelluti, another mouse click away, used the telescope as a microscope to study bees. Looking forward to our time, I was hearing on the radio how bees are disappearing and the relationship of global warming to insect behavior. The moon now has footprints.

Jellyfish Nebula ©Ann Pike

So my images look back in time. Back to the old cosmology. Back to Galileo, back to the Egyptians,. My images look to today. To the Hubble, to the images I download with computer and telescope camera. My images are my exploration of the new discoveries in science related to the mind and the universe. They are a combination of processes both very old like etchings and very new, using computer generated imagery. I hear it on the radio, read it in books, then find it on the Internet.

Ten yards of blue dyed silk that has been discharged and dye screen printed ©Ann Pike

Detail of two layers of installed seven yard cyanotype on silk with dye ©Ann Pike

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