Art & Photography

A cloud, a feather, a butterfly wing

Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin talks to PORT about her new exhibition at Paul Smith’s Mayfair store, which celebrates her love of cyanotype – one of the earliest forms of photographic printing

Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin  in her studio
Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin in her studio

Discovered in the first half of the 19th century by English astronomer and scientist Sir John Herschel, cyanotype is an age-old photographic technique that creates cyan-blue silhouettes and dreamlike prints when an object is placed on a reactive surface and left to develop in a dark environment. Although originally used by Herschel as a way of recording notes and making blueprints, cyanotype was soon picked up by his friend and botanist Anna Atkins, who went on to create stunning photograms of flora she had collected, which earned her the (somewhat disputed) title of the world’s first female photographer.

Over 170 years later, photographer Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin has chosen to pick up that baton in collaboration with Joanna Skipwith from Silverjungle to put together an exhibition of her own cyanotype works at Paul Smith, 9 Albemarle Street, London. Here, Scheder-Bieschin discusses her work and the ethereal imagery created with cyanotype.

Cyanotype prints by Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin
Cyanotype prints by Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin

When did you discover cyanotype and how did this exhibition come together?

When I was still shooting on film, a long while ago, I always enjoyed printing both my colour and black and white work myself. Since my commercial work became solely digital, I was missing the darkroom so I set one up at home to work on some personal projects. I quickly realised that what interested me most was hands-on experimenting with processes; I wanted to create images that I couldn’t create with a digital camera and so, at the beginning of 2014, I started making cyanotypes.

What is special about the prints in your show?

Each print is a handmade, unique and fragile object. The choice of the paper and the coating of the paper is part of the resulting image. Also, some of these images are made without a camera at all – simply with paper, developer and daylight.

Were there any other photographers that experimented with cyanotypes who offered you inspiration?

I love Henrietta Molinaro’s work with cyanotype and, of course, the famous Anna Atkins. I am fascinated by the very early photographer William Henry Fox Talbot too. He didn’t work with cyanotypes, but he was very experimental. I love the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto and also Bauhaus photographers like László Moholy-Nagy. Other people have recently begun working with cyanotypes, most notably Thomas Ruff who has a show at the Gagosian gallery at the moment.

What did you learn about photography and your own work while exploring the cyanotype process?

I think I’ve begun to reconnect with the idea of making personal project work and with the potential of imagery to represent more than its surface’s content.

Photography has changed so much since I started working some 25 years ago. Negatives, darkrooms and chemicals have largely disappeared. Image-making and sharing is now so simple and ubiquitous that it is difficult to honour each image. The process that I use is very slow – I’ve worked on the few images that are in my show for nearly a year. Hopefully the amount of thought and consideration that has gone into the creation of each of them is evident.

What will you do next with cyanotype? How likely are you to use it in your commercial work?

I’m currently working on projects around the themes of time, memories and documentation. Creating images without the constraints of a brief has been liberating for me. But I think that there must be many applications for this image-making process in the commercial world – in still life and fashion, for instance.

Scheder-Bieschin’s cyanotypes will be on display at Paul Smith 9 Albemarle Street until 7 October 2015. From 1 November, the cyanotypes will be available to buy at Silver Jungle