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An Afternoon of Alt Photo on Vashon Island

Writer and photography / Nancy Breslin

During an afternoon visit with Linda Stemer on Vashon Island, Nancy Breslin had several alt photo surprises.

Linda Stemer stands in front of her cyanotype workshop.
Linda Stemer, in front of her workshop.

I spent a week this August on beautiful, rural Vashon Island, which is a short ferry ride from Seattle.  Remembering that Linda Stemer, the owner of blueprintsonfabric.com, lives there, I arranged to visit her one afternoon.  We had not met before, but Linda felt like a friend from many phone and email contacts over the years.  It was a treat to see her studio, and there were several bonuses thrown in.   For those who don’t know her company, Linda prepares and sells fabric and paper that have been sensitized with cyanotype chemistry.

Fabric samples are shown, demonstrating the different shades of blue.
Notice the different shades of blue from cotton, silk and bamboo/rayon blend.

I have purchased yardage from her for personal projects and classes, and also coated paper for workshops with children.  Her lab area (a renovated garden shed with recently painted blue walls, to cover the blue stains!) has a large tub of chemicals, a wringer, and several dryers.  An outer room has bolts of fabric of many types (including silk, cotton, and bamboo, ranging from some that are almost transparent to others in a thick velvet). It was great to touch each fabric and to see printed samples side by side on Linda’s large work table.  The blue color can be very different, depending on the fiber type.   Linda is a sunny woman who clearly loves what she does.

Linda and Victoria display half of Linda's diptych, depicting a leafless tree.
Linda and Vicitoria display half of Linda’s cyanotype diptych on fabric.

The first bonus was the coincidence of a visit that day by Julia Zay and students from her alt photo class at Evergreen State College, in nearby Olympia, Washington.  One item that Linda showed the class was a work print, half of a large fabric diptych that she had recently completed for a client in Maryland.  She discussed the challenges of working on that scale, and how she had solved some logistical problems.  One trial used acrylic to press the digital negative to the fabric, but the acrylic warped slightly, interfering with registration.  Linda found that a repositional fabric spray adhesive yielded better results.

Diptych of Victoria Anderson preparing to make a tintype group portrait, and the result.
Victoria Anderson composing a tintype group portrait, and the result.

The second bonus was that I got to tag along when the class went on a visit to the home studio of Linda’s assistant, Victoria Anderson.  Victoria, a graduate of Evergreen, has worked with cyanotype, wet plate collodion and tintype, among other processes, and she was set up to give us some demonstrations.  In a rural, outdoor setting that was fitting for these 19th century techniques, she first prepared glass for a wet plate negative, and made a portrait in a vintage view camera.  Each student was able to step under the hood to see how composition and focus are adjusted on the ground glass, and after exposure saw the magic of image development.  Victoria then prepared and shot a tintype of the class in a modified Brownie camera.  Students crunched on apples growing in the yard while Victoria worked.

Prints by the late Vashon Island photographer Norman Edson.
Prints by the late Vashon Island photographer Norman Edson.

The final bonus, back in Linda’s studio, was seeing her collection of prints by Vashon photographer Norman Edson.  Many of his photos were hand colored gelatin silver prints, but he also worked in the orotone process, and the gold-toned backing gives these images, many of which depict Mt. Rainier, a beautiful opalescence.  By chance the house where I was staying was a short walk from the home in Burton where Edson lived and worked.

4 thoughts on “An Afternoon of Alt Photo on Vashon Island

  1. Yes, cyanotype papers can be exposed with a UV light box or similar set up when you’d prefer to work indoors. But the winter months don’t rule out sun exposures – I have made good prints outdoors in January, although rain or snow will obviously be a problem. If you do work in the winter, because of the lower angle of the sun you might try propping up your print frame so the sun is more perpendicular to the paper surface.

  2. i ordered cloth from Linda and also found her to be very nice over the phone, you
    are fortunate that you could visit. I did euro pillows from feathers and
    plants from my yard, turned out beautiful. For my next project i would like to do
    a spider web, might have to wait until spring now as they are all going to their
    warm places for winter here in Kansas.

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