The magical work of photographer Chris Routledge
In the age of digital photography and instant pictures, there’s something a little magical about watching an image slowly appear before your eyes.
And when the colour of that image can be altered by using kitchen ingredients such as tea, coffee – and red wine – there’s an element of fun as well as magic.
Chris Routledge, an award-winning conceptual and documentary landscape photographer, who lives at Ormskirk, has developed an expertise in the process known as cyanotype and is now finding an appreciative audience for his beautiful and unusual prints.
“Having a print on the wall, or looking at them in a book is entirely different from seeing them online. In print you get to know a piece of work, to think about it, and enjoy it more deeply,” he says.
A writer and former lecturer in English, Chris has enjoyed taking pictures since he was given a Kodak Instamatic camera as a child.
But photography really began to “get a grip on me” in 2002, when he and his wife Siobhan went on an extended trip to California, where she was researching a book. “The day before we set off our old camera jammed, and I replaced it in a hurry with an early a digital camera. It was terrible by today’s standards, but very exciting at the time.”
Chris started photographing everything, “and it became even more of an obsession in 2004 when our daughter Caitlin was born.” He bought a more advanced camera “seven megapixels!”, and had some of his photographs published in Lancashire Life to accompany an article about Liverpool’s Cain’s brewery (which he was writing a book about at the time). “By then I was also starting to see the creative possibilities of photography beyond the camera.”
Chris started using film again in 2008 when he realised that excellent old cameras with interesting lenses were available for very little money: “People were giving them away in fact. And so I was able to experiment with equipment from the previous 100 years of photography. This was the point at which picture making as a form of expression separated itself from simply taking pictures.”
He collaborated with the poet Rebecca Goss (their book Carousel won the Michael Marks Award for Illustration in 2019), and began exhibiting his work, notably at the Portico Library in Manchester. His commercial work includes book covers and photograhs for books and magazines, including National Geographic Books, and the Inward Eye Film Festival at Zeffirellis in Ambleside.
In December 2015 Chris was at Rydal in the Lake District when Storm Desmond hit, and immediately began photographing a short stretch of the River Rothay in the aftermath. This work eventually became a book Indeterminate Land, and an exhibition at the Heaton Cooper Gallery in Grasmere in 2019.
He’d been invited to run a series of cyanotype workshops at Rydal Mount, the home of William Wordsworth, when the pandemic forced lockdown. Instead, Chris used the time to develop his website, selling work made from negatives printed onto overhead projector transparencies. These large negatives, placed on top of sensitised paper, are exposed to ultraviolet light (the sun) to make a cyanotype “contact print”.
“I like experimenting with different papers, all of which produce different textures and effects. I fell in love with the process as a way of making unique, tactile art works from my photographs.”
The prints have a delicate ethereal quality, at times ghostly; some see a portal into fairyland. There’s Winter Ash, a photo taken on Loughrigg fell, with a sideways light that caught the grey branches of the tree. The picture is printed on hand-made cotton rag paper.
Then there’s the old stone boat-house on the shores of Grasmere, a picture taken on a cold February day when fog blotted out everything except the outline of a wintry tree.
Chris says: “For me photography is an opportunity to experiment with composition, light, ideas, and emotion. This is more important to me than pixel-perfect images. “
It led him first to pinhole cameras, and then to cyanotype printing, which is a method of making images discovered by Sir John Herschel in 1841. Anna Atkins soon began using it to make scientific illustrations of lichen and algae, and produced the first ever photobooks with it in 1843. Cyanotype prints are blue, and the best-known use of the process was in copying technical drawings and plans, which became known as “blueprints”.
Making a cyanotype print is very simple, says Chris. Paper is coated with a mixture of two chemicals, ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. “Despite their alarming names, these are relatively safe to use if you take basic precautions.”
Once dried, the paper is sensitive to UV light. It should be stored in the dark, but can be handled in subdued light indoors, though flourescent light should be avoided.
To make a cyanotype “photogram” place feathers, pressed flowers, or anything you like on the paper, put a piece of glass on top to keep it flat, and put it outside in the sun for a while. Once the paper has changed colour, rinse the paper in water, and an image should appear.
“Different levels of sunlight affect how long the exposure you will need (around 10-15 minutes on a sunny day in Lancashire), but experimenting is part of the pleasure.
“If you want to go a little further, you can experiment with bleaching the print, toning it to alter the blue colour, or change it altogether, using things from the kitchen such as tea, coffee, red wine, vinegar, and so on. After a while you learn to get the effects you want, or just relax and give in to chance.”
Prints and printing have become more important to him, says Chris, especially under lockdown conditions, when going out to take new photographs has not been easy.
He was also involved in another lockdown project, a marathon reading of the story The Picts and the Martyrs by Arthur Ransome. He’s previously staged events on the shores of Coniston water, and at the Coppermines youth hostel, where fans of Ransome – actors, writers, enthusiasts old and young – gathered to read aloud Swallows and Amazons, and Pigeon Post.
This time, the readers recorded their allocated chapters at home, then uploaded them for release on social media. There’s a dedicated website for the project, https://ifnotduffers.org
Meanwhile Chris’s work can be viewed – and bought on his website https://chrisroutledge.pictures/prints#/handmade-prints/