A sunny blue afternoon – making cyanotypes at Te Papa

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be given a jar of prepared solution to use to make my own cyanotypes. I work with the photography collection at Te Papa but I am not a photographer so I enjoyed this opportunity to experiment with making some photographs using an historic analogue process.

Cyanotypes are a photograph made without a camera by laying objects onto paper coated with solution. It is one of the earliest photographic processes and was discovered in 1842 by English scientist and astronomer, Sir John Herschel. It was primarily used as a way of recording and copying prior to the invention of technology such as photocopiers and is also known as a ‘blueprint’. One of the most famous uses made of the cyanotype was by Anna Atkins (1799-1871) who used the process to make photogram prints of algae and then bound them into book format.


Once I had coated the paper and found suitable items to ‘image’ – a paper cut out, film strips, plants – I placed the sensitised paper and the objects into a wooden contact printing frame and closed it up.


As the solution is only sensitive to UV light, I then took them outdoors into direct sunlight onto the roof of Te Papa.


Back inside (above) after exposure to the sun.


Out of the frames and about to be washed.


In the bath.


One of the finished prints.

In Te Papa’s photography collection there is a cyanotype print by Wayne Barrar and albums of New Zealand Ferns made in the late 19th century by Herbert Dobbie (1852-1940).  

Take a look at some more sunny day fun in this video of some people making a cyanotype on a large cloth.

2 Responses

  1. Leon

    Thanks Lissa, very interesting. How easy to prepare is the solution for sensitising paper?

    • Lissa Mitchell

      Hi Leon – I’m not sure how easy it is as I was given the solution all made up and ready go.

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