When I deliver an artist lecture, I spend most of my time talking about accidents. While the finished piece hanging on the gallery wall has weight and formality to it, the process of making a cyanotype might best be described as a cross between a three-ring circus and a four-alarm fire. No matter how carefully I have sketched out my plan and laid out my materials, the moment I begin the exposure, things are frantic, dirty, sweaty, and overwrought. After I coat and dry the light-sensitive paper, I store it in light-tight bags until I’m ready to make the image. Once I take the paper out of the bag, I have fifteen seconds to arrange my body and any other materials on top of the paper, and the next twenty minutes of the exposure to contemplate all the ways that things have already gone wrong.
I practice each pose repeatedly on the ground beforehand, getting up and lying down, trying to shave a few seconds off the time it takes me to get into position. Even so, it’s not uncommon for me to miss the spot where one of my limbs was intended to rest, changing the image in small but significant ways.
I learned to make cyanotypes in a lab. It was quiet, cool, and dark. I could arrange, remove and rearrange objects at leisure until I felt confident about the image. Then I’d carry the paper over to an ultraviolet light unit, where I could set a timer for a perfect exposure. Working in these conditions, any meticulous practitioner could count on ideal results. Making large-scale exposures outside, using the sun as an exposure unit, I’ve had to adapt to the uncertainty of real-life conditions. I check the weather forecast for hot, sunny, windless days, and plan to make images on those days. Even so, a sudden gust of wind has sent panels of paper flying across the backyard, ruined. I’ve been caught in rainstorms, thunderstorms and once, a siren-screeching tornado warning. I’ve discovered pairs of robins enthusiastically bathing in my rinse trays, on top of my freshly completed works. I’ve accidentally made an exposure on an anthill, and had to lie motionless while the ants crawled all over me. Bees, flies and spiders have all made appearances in some of the images.
Although I try to work in seclusion, I’ve had bystanders cross the grass, open the fence gate and come into my yard to ask me what I’m doing. During a recent exposure, a group of three neighbor children came over with their Chihuahua to ask why I was lying on the ground in my nightgown, covered in confetti. I had no answer to give them. Years ago, when a FedEx delivery man came to drop off a box and checked the backyard to see if anyone was home, he found myself and a model wearing nothing but roller skates, limbs entangled, sprawled across a length of doubleweight canvas. With eight minutes remaining in the exposure, all we could do was wait in immobile, horrified silence for him to leave.
I make more mistakes than I achieve successes. Each time, I’m convinced that I have ruined everything forever. Each time, though, something can be saved. A fierce wind that flipped over all of my props taught me that moving an object partway through an exposure can create of depth in the image. A rain shower during a period of sun can create a stippled pattern across the image, something I’ve learned to hope for. Ruinous errors have led me to better images than I could have made on my own.
When the cyanotypes are hanging in the gallery and I get dressed up to give my lecture, I tell myself not to recount any stories about bugs or thunderstorms or Chihuahuas or the FedEx man (especially not the FedEx man!). I tell myself to act like a grown-up, like a serious artist, and yet nearly every time someone asks me how I made something, I find myself answering, “It was an accident.”