Arts & Culture

A solar photography ode to trees

Weeds from the garden on Sunprint paper in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Weeds from the garden on Sunprint paper in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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As the city continues to clear up debris from the Aug. 10 storm, I began to think about non-traditional ways to illustrate the tree damage.

One of my earliest photo lessons as a child used Sunprint paper to create a negative image of ordinary objects. I decided to try my hand at this simple cyanotype process for this week’s column.

Sunprints — originally developed at the Lawrence Hall of Science on the UC Berkeley — are in many ways the antithesis of modern photography. In a matter of seconds, you could take a photo with your iPhone and send it to friends across the country. For this collection of Sunprints, I spent two hours making 15 prints on a sunny day.

First, I gathered my natural materials, focusing on my own backyard. A weed growing over the sidewalk provided my first test subject. The contrast will be stronger if you use the included acrylic sheet to press down your objects. Lay your paper down in the shade or other darker space, arrange objects on top (quickly because it is sensitive to ultraviolet light and has already started to expose), top with the acrylic sheet and let it expose for between 1-5 minutes.

On our bright sunny day this Monday, two minutes was perfect.

You can watch as the blue paper fades to white, which is when it’s ready to be rinsed. As you rinse it in water a chemical reaction causes the exposed areas to turn dark blue. It will continue to darken as it dries.

As I scavenged through my yard, I found a few objects that did not translate in this format. Milkweed seeds disappeared in the printed form and a slight breeze made them impossible to arrange. Dimensional tangles of dried oak leaves became a ghostly blur; fresh leaves would create a more defined image.

But I had success with a few leaves and branches and decided to present them here as a triptych, and an ode to my fallen trees.

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In a time of instant photographic gratification, the slow photography process of Sunprints was a welcome change of pace.

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