Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Promise of Purloined Paper

I was exploring new image-making ideas this week, conceptualizing on alternative materials one could employ in the process.

One such family of products comes from the graphic arts/drafting/architecture field. The material is known generically as 'blue line paper'. There are also variants in this class, among which are black line paper - used to create final drawing prints for presentation - and sepia line paper, which is used as an intermediary upon which further revisions can be made and subsequently printed.

In operation, a draughtsman would sandwich his drawing with an identically sized sheet of blue line paper. The front of the drawing would be in contact with the chemically active side of the blue line paper. The two are then ran through a developing machine together, which exposes the image of the drawing onto the blue line paper using a cylindrical UV fluorescent bulb, much like a contact print is made in a traditional silver-based photographic darkroom. When the two sheets exit the exposure section of the machine, they are separated, and the blue line paper is ran through the developer section of the machine, which exposes the paper to ammonia vapors. The reaction between the vapors and the ferrous-based chemistry on the paper causes a positive image of the original drawing to develop out.

This technology is now considered archaic in the milieu of the modern architectural design studio, where CAD-based workstations abound, and blueprints are farmed out to dedicated print shops whose economies of scale permit economically viable printing via thermal toner media.

Thus we find a languishing technology base of little-used blue line printing equipment and supplies, still being manufactured and somewhat readily available, ripe for appropriation by some artist intent on the purloining of these elegantly simply devices for creative image-making purposes.

So it came with no small degree of interest when a story showed up on 'Make Magazine's' website a DIY project for copying old black and white photographs onto blue line paper. The project used window cleaning solution, containing a small percentage of ammonia, poured into a disposable Styrofoam food container, with a metal grid to suspend the paper face down above the surface of the liquid, to absorb the resulting vapors. Once contact printed in the sun, under a sheet of glass, the blue line paper is placed face down on the grid above the noxious liquid, and the tray is wrapped in a plastic bag and allowed to sit for 5 minutes. The resulting image develops out quite nicely, at least according to the article's suggestions.

Several questions immediately come to mind. First, is this 'blue line' paper chemistry similar to the traditional cyanotype process as developed by Sir William Herschel, and which is practiced by many alternative process photographers? If so, it comes as a surprise that they have not discovered the usage of ammonia vapors to develop the paper, rather than the traditional water bath development. Second, would traditional cyanotype paper actually develop in ammonia vapors, and if so, would it provide a superior image quality? Third, could one successfully adopt the alternative fixing and toning steps, done with cyanotype to render it more stable, and apply these to blue line paper prints to render them more stable, as well?

My interest in these questions is because of the economy of use associated with these manufactured products. One can find 24"x36" sheets of such paper for sale at 40ยข per sheet, making it much more economical to use than traditional silver-based photo paper. And since black line paper is also available at no greater cost, one can generate prints with a neutral gray tone, which is more universally adaptable to a wider variety of images than the severely blue-tinted, traditional cyanotype.

There remains the big problem: creating the original negative with which one would use to make these large prints. Keep in mind that blue line paper is a reversal media, meaning that it stays light were light strikes it, and turns dark where little or no light strikes it; to use such a paper would require one to have an in-camera original that was a positive image of the scene, rather than the usual negative that is produced by normal photographic means. Obviously, one thinks about using blue line paper itself as the 'film' in the camera. It is doubtful, however, that blue line paper is sensitive enough to form an image of a daylight scene without many hours of exposure, if at all. Furthermore, contact printing such a positive original onto another blue line sheet would be better done by using sepia line paper as the in-camera media, since better definition would be gained by the UV-blocking properties of the sepia paper's yellowish line quality.

As for the camera within which to perform these experiments, I would use my 5x8 binocular lens box camera for the initial experiments. Wide open, the 50mm lens would provide an aperture of f/3, which should provide sufficient light to form an image on blue line media, if it is at all possible to do so. For larger images, my 200mm diameter, 1 meter focal length, UV lens, acquired from a Nikon stepper, could be feasibly built into a large 1 meter long box camera.

We find, therefore, the need to acquire both black line paper and sepia line paper before we can proceed with these experiments. We also need to attempt to develop 'sun print' paper - a commercially available cyanotype paper - using ammonia vapor techniques.

The end result of this project is to attempt to merge together two elements of image-making that have heretofore been disjoined: alternative photographic media and commercial blueprint technology. Stay tuned for the pending results.~


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