Saturday, February 2, 2008

"Blue Prints," Zeva Oelbaum (2002) and the pop world of Bae Yong Joon

Zeva Oelbaum's cyanotype botanicals (blue photographic prints), a few examples of which are reproduced here from her beautiful book Blue Prints (Rizzoli, 2002), create an unexpected, otherworldly effect. Zeva's own words, further below, capture the scientific, photographic properties of cyanotype, but there is a romantic mood created by the simplicity of color and shape of these contemporary images from this antique and nearly-forgotten 19th-century process.

Oelbaum's work inspires others in unexpected ways. In the blog "Zoom on Bae Yong Joon," Blue Prints photographs complement the imagery of a Korean pop star. The effect is incongruous, yet the blogger known as Jaime has created a universe of romantic longing and beauty -- however silly it seems -- from joining the ridiculous and the sublime: an earnest, visual definition of kitsch. Yet the effect is unusually haunting.

In the world of pop culture blogs it can always be argued that, as in art, far less has been done with far more. In the world of pop idols, however, the unexpected (and the appropriated) has its place, even if the serious artist is blissfully unaware of how the work is used. Here are Jaime's own words, reminding all readers that romantic swoons can be a path toward understanding, as well as a labor of story-book love:

Still-life photographer Zeva Oelbaum discovered a Victorian herbarium (botanical journal) in a tiny seaside antiques shop along the coast of New England. The only trace of its origin is an inscription ‘May 18, 1896, Randolph, VT’ in graceful penmanship. This century old treasure has yellowed rippled parchment paper tied with fraying white satin ribbon. Through the delicate hands of a young woman over a century ago, the fragile botanicals were diligently arranged with strings of linen in an artful and whimsical composition. Time has worked wonders too, the pressed botanical has created a shadow impression of itself reflecting on the adjoining page.

The journal was a means of creative fulfillment, letting this young lady escape into the beauty of flowers in her peaceful surroundings. Maybe it’s that light touch of nostalgia lingering in the air, that mystical sensation from a bygone era or the mere thought of an artist’s creativity narrowly forgotten and rediscovered.

About her own work with blue print photography, Oelbaum writes:

I became fascinated by the cyanotype process when I learned that it holds an important, if unrecognized, place in the history of photography. In 1843, British botanist Anna Atkins (1799-1871) published a landmark volume of over four hundred cyanotypes entitled British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. This book was the first to be illustrated entirely with photographs. To make the prints, Atkins placed the algae specimens on paper coated with iron salts, then exposed it to sunlight. When she washed the print in water, the outcome was a white specimen outlined on a prussian blue background. Images created in this manner came to be known as blue prints. In this way she created photograms, or "shadowgraphs" as she called them, of each original plant.

The chemical formula for cyanotypes was developed the year before by British astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792-1871) as a reliable and efficient way to copy his calculations. Before his discovery, draughtsmen were typically employed to duplicate notes and charts. Herschel also coined the terms "photography," "negative," and "positive."

I found working with the blue print process
liberating. Released from any obligation to reproduce details, I started to explore the interactions of shapes both formal and organic. As the objects became less precise, I became freer to interpret them.

It was rewarding to work in this nineteenth-century medium to create a contemporary body of work that both expanded upon this form that Atkins had mastered and my own photographic vocabulary.

Zeva Oelbaum's website can be found at All images from the book Blue Prints created by Zeva Oelbaum and published by Rizzoli Books, New York.


Blossom said...

Elegant commentary on an elegant subject.

M Bromberg said...

Thanks ... these images remind me of the cut-paper forms of Henri Matisse. I wonder if he was familiar with Atkins' original photograms.