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CYANOTYPE: Working the ‘blues’ in Greece

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A cyanotype print on rice paper hung out to dry on Skopelos

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The azure blue of the Aegean Sea perfectly matches the prussian blue of the historic process cyanotype. The ancient stories of Ulysses and Jason’s Argonauts lend themselves to the contemporary narratives that can be made through photography and the photobook. In May we sought to explore these creative possibilities through a collaborative workshop coordinated by artist Steph Bolt and Skopelos Works on Paper on the island of Skopelos located in the Sporades north-east of Athens.

 

Six participants worked with us over a two-week program of structured lectures, practical sessions and photo forays to explore the possibilities for image taking and art making on the island. Staying in the main town on the island we worked out of the purpose-built printmaking studio with a view out over rocky headlands, distant islands, blue waters and skies. The studio sits atop of the town next to the remains of a castle with steps and paved pathways leading to the harbour and the Paralia. Tourism is a significant industry for the island however its impact does not destroy a feeling of being within an authentic experience of Greece.

 

The workshops started with breakfast daily at 8.30am with a studio start at 9.00am. By 2.30pm the formal program finished enabling personal exploration of the diverse subject matter available. Everyday participant’s day concluded in the restaurants of the Paralia partaking in the culinary delights of rustic Greek food supported by ouzo, retsina and aspro krasi (white wine). We ate fantastic squid, octopus, anchovies, little fishes, rabbit, goat, traditional foraged foods like the succulent kritima, local cheeses, Skopelos pies and gyros. Some members of the group formed relationships with the restaurateurs and towards the end of each meal extra wine and special desserts were presented as gifts by the host.

At regular intervals in the program Steph and her husband Robin took us on photo adventures: to the ancient graves at Sendoukia for sunrise, the Roman bathhouse ruins of Loutraki, the hillside town of Glossa and the classic white rocky cliffs and beaches of the island. The island is also famous for providing the setting for the Bronson and Streep film, Mama Mia so we visited the famous church on the rock Agios Ioannis. As part of most of these forays we had more opportunities to dine in tavernas, coffee shops and seaside restaurants.

Agios Ioannis

Key to the program was the concept of ‘place-making’, that is making photographs and forming them into themes and photo-essays that told of the personal experience of place by the photographer. The process of the cyanotype was explored employing traditional ‘shadow’ imprint of objects collected from the island to some very experimental work with multiple materials and exposures and double-sided printing. We worked not only with art papers but also with rice paper, various cloth materials event kitchen paper towelling. We had also gathered some special objects like a range Greek laces and linens, local rocks and a diverse range of plant material. Connecting direct photography with the cyanotype process was achieved on-site by the making of enlarged inkjet negatives.

Photobooks were developed at first as mini-book projects that could lead to online projects with MomentoPro software. MomentoPro supported the project by accrediting our program as part of the ‘Club’ services giving the participants 40% discount on their first book and 10% on each of their future books.

A local cat keeps Gail amused while she exposes a cyanotype

The participants were accommodated near the studio at the top of the town – one group had extensive views of the Aegean Sea sunrise with the other group overlooking the town. As mentioned earlier the distance to the shops and restaurants in the harbour required the negotiation of several hundred bespoke steps of local stone and concrete all with their leading edge painted white. The steps meandered past mainly two storied whitewashed houses with ornate doors and grilles. Ancient churches some built with reclaimed stones from other building provided an experience of place that was quite memorable. Coming home from shopping or dinner meant a steep climb up through the paths, sometime dodging motorcycles although many steps are so narrow that even they are footpaths alone. On one early evening return we encountered a church group with candles being led in a song procession with a Greek Orthodox priest leading the way – a memorable moment indeed.

The weather was very changeable requiring some program shuffles, as cyanotypes are direct sun exposures for many minutes. Ah! Today is sunny – we’ll make cyanotypes then… Once participants grasped the technique each took the process in their own directions. Many sophisticated books were made based on other workshop classes in book binding and finishing. Some went BIG making full sheet (55x76cm) cyanotypes.

Morning review

At the beginning of each workday a review of the previous activities was undertaken. The specific needs of each participant could be covered and ideas shared.

On the final day each photographer presented their best work – what an amazing body of work that represented – although within hours each had said their goodbyes and had caught ferries off the island and were flying homeward. We were all jealous of Steph and Robin who have a house in the town and stay there for about half the year. Their knowledge of the island and networking with island people was invaluable for the success of the workshop. Works were shared and a folio set of eight small books were made in multiple so everyone ended up with a memento from each of other individual experiences …

All of us were touched by something special on the island – our photographs and books act as evidence of experience but also a touchstone to relive and share those experiences…

 

Here are some photos of the final presentations…

 

 

Copyright in the text and all photographs are the copyright of Doug Spowart+Victoria Cooper unless otherwise indicated. The copyright of the artworks is held by the artists.

 

 

 

 

 

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