Consider This Lesson Two: You Just Can’t Plan Everything by Adam Ottke

After putting Henrietta aside (not to worry, we have some plans to repurpose her [perhaps not the best choice of words, there]), all of us settled on the fact that the sun was the light source to use.

A smaller print exposes in the sunlight as I top off the first water bath.

Because the cyanotype emulsion we brush onto the paper to make it “photographic paper” is only sensitive to certain wavelengths of ultraviolet light, and since readily available manmade UV lights are only available in lower wattage bulbs, it makes sense that the single object responsible for the entirety of the world’s sunburns would be the proper light source for our project. If we wanted to use Henrietta, we would have to wait well over an hour for each exposure — and that would be after retrofitting her with at least eight more UV lights (I’m slowly discovering that “retrofitting” is not a term nor a subject amenable to the art of personification...this could get sticky). With the sun, we only need eight to 14 minutes depending on the time of day.

With this in mind, testing soon began in direct sunlight. This process is something with which we had great experience. Lia had precise notes on past exposure times at varying hours of the day. We had done plenty of test in the past. We had the same recipe for creating our cyanotype mixture. Two large-format prints had already been completed, framed, and shown in Los Angeles with this process. This was supposed to be easy. This was supposed to be easy.

Printing every Friday and Saturday (we may have even thrown in a Thursday during Spring Break), an entire week elapsed over just two actual days of printing. And four printing days after our first sunlight tests, we had yet to produce one viable print.

The first day, we realized the three giant bins that we ordered (which were supposed to be large enough to fit the mesh frames we built to support the prints for drying) tapered ever so slightly toward the bottom and were simply too small for our washing system. The UPS guy came to pick those up, and we ironically had two smaller bins ordered. The opening diameter was the same, but since these bins were shorter, they didn’t taper as much until reaching the bottom point in the bin.

There was a tedious paragraph to get through, but no more so than the tedious process of everything that simply cannot be planned. Not to worry: fast-forward through the next part…

A day of not being able to wash large prints is a great day for testing and printing smaller ones. But our prints were browning or yellowing or not clearing the green-yellow tinge of cyanotype emulsion in the whites. The blues were washed out and tired. Something was missing.

We narrowed it down to the lack of citric acid. We added just a couple drops to the mixture, and boom! Deep, rich, ultra-dark blues. Rinse the print, hydrogen peroxide bath, rinse the print again, hang it to dry. Again, the browning returned over the course of the drying process. Something was missing.

Lia gets a shot of us all, completely perplexed by why our prints continue to look washed out and brown.

At this point, we were at a standstill. We were half-way through our fourth or fifth day of actual printing. We remixed three different formulas to troubleshoot any possible mistakes. And then we remembered Lia’s prints that were finished, framed, shown — they were perfect. Lia’s previous prints with the same mixture we used this entire time were perfect. And yet, our prints were still terrible. Something was missing.

Lia went back to painting her negatives for the piece with Jenny, which itself must be amongst the most meditative tasks in her arsenal of support tools…until she might occasionally remember the one that was ruined during this same period of turmoil because the cat got in and danced all over it. If you’re going to go through all of this to create something as incredibly beautiful as it is meaningful, perhaps meditation is the only way to stay sane.

As an anti-climatic end — and only so because I missed the single best day of printing when apparently everyone in East Los Angeles showed up to help with the process — Lia, Jenny, Garret, Jorma, and even two other new additions to the team were all there to discover the issue was, in fact, the paper. A paper we ordered that was made by the same manufacturer, but in a more convenient size than the one Lia had originally used, was in fact the culprit behind all of our weeks of agony. And with this discovery comes the end to your own agony.

Everyone is happier, in ever-increasing spirits, and we apparently have our first prints — or so I hear. Expect some more uplifting accounts in the coming weeks. But it’s worth noting that no matter how much you plan (from measuring the size of wash bins you’ll need for rinsing the prints and creating negatives in advance that get ruined because of a cat’s curiosity — what a cliché — to ensuring your mixture of chemicals is true and that your paper happens to be one that works well with the mixture you’ve chosen), you never know what can go wrong. Even the most certain aspects will turn to your most cruel and challenging surprises. You have to have the support, passion, and stamina to make it through those roadblocks.


Consider this Lesson Two: you just can’t plan everything.

Consider This Lesson One: Test, Test, and Test More by Adam Ottke

With the precision (if not the artistry) of the graph-paper-armed architect, we had the perfect plan for building a contraption that would allow us exacting control over the exposure of what would be Lia’s first, large-format cyanotype prints for her series, Your Body Is a Space that Sees.

Henrietta is the largest lighting system I've ever built. I can't imagine building one larger for any real, practical purpose.

With a diagram that took longer to slap together in Photoshop than it should have, Garret and I headed to Home Depot to grab everything we would need.

We spent the next forty or so man-hours putting together Henrietta, as we soon called her, after astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (from hard drives to cameras to Wi-Fi networks and passwords, everything is ultimately sworn into duty with a name fit for Your Body Is a Space that Sees). Leavitt was a Harvard College Observatory “computer” back when that was an appropriate title for a human. Her turn-of-the-century work in computing the brightness (or luminosity) of stars and the relationship between luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars laid the groundwork for future astronomers to measure the distance between far-away galaxies and Earth, which greatly aided Edwin Hubble in his discovery that the universe was expanding.

By the time we finished putting her together, Henrietta was truly a beast. The two-by-fours we had selected for her construction were, admittedly, complete overkill. In order to support this weight, we had attached four grotesquely large blocks for her legs. We had some nifty locks fashioned into all the right places to keep the unit somewhat workable in practice. But ultimately, Henrietta resembled nothing of her namesake, who was certainly more swan-like than the Frankenstein of a machine we put together. Want something overbuilt? Leave it to two, twenty-something, over six-foot-tall, well-meaning but rather passionate guys.

When all was said and done, Henrietta was a name we had barely begun to get used to before our first tests proved to us that the ultraviolet lights we put into this contraption were far too dim to be of use to us.

Of course, there is a good reason that we didn’t first test one small print with a single, fluorescent UV light before going through the expense or time commitment of actually building Henrietta. Scientifically, this profound reason is referred to as human error. Put more colloquially, we screwed up.

Perhaps it was the name choice itself that doomed us from the beginning. But it was only in hindsight that I realized the irony of Henrietta’s unfortunate lack in brightness. The Cepheids Leavitt measured over 100 years ago remain over 100,000 times more luminous than our sun, but we could not coax Henrietta into producing enough light for a single cyanotype within any reasonable amount of time.

Consider this Lesson One: test, test, and test more.

Garret kneels over Henrietta as we patiently wait over forty minutes for her to produce some tangible prints that prove her existence necessary. By this point, we had propped our test print up with books to decrease the distance from the lights, thereby increasing their intensity/effect.