For several years now, Jennifer Booher has been making double-exposure cyanotype photograms of disposable plastic shopping bags. She calls the series “Extinction” and it began after her town banned plastic bags as a tongue-in-cheek typology imagining these bags as an endangered species.
The process is pretty straightforward – I layer a plastic bag over a sheet of cyanotype paper on a hard board, cover it with a sheet of clear acrylic, clip them together as tightly as I can, and prop the assemblage up so it’s roughly perpendicular to the sun (to avoid distorted shadows.) Exposure is always a crap shoot, since the thickness and opacity of the bags vary tremendously, as does the strength of the sunlight in Maine, but I’ve found that for most bags, 5 minutes is about right. The more translucent bags can take as little as 1 minute, and the most opaque can take about 10 minutes.
I find prep work really boring, so when I first started experimenting with cyanotype, I used pre-treated papers, of which the Cyanotype Store were the best quality. I was never totally happy with the pre-fab stuff, so I grumbled a lot and started preparing my own. I’ve experimented with a variety of papers and like both Fabriano and Arches 140lb hot press watercolor paper. I’ve only used the Photographer’s Formulary prepared solution, but have been so pleased with the Jacquard fabric that I’ll be trying their solution as well. The size of the paper I used was limited by the size of my kitchen sink – it was tricky to process anything larger than 11×14 without rinsing it unevenly, so for larger bags, I pieced together several sheets of paper.
This year I began developing a new project called “Ghosts of the Panthalassic Ocean,” drawing on the origins of petrochemicals as plankton living in the Mesozoic-era Panthalassic Ocean to evoke an emotional response to microplastics data. The project began with three 5’ x7’ cloth banners titled ‘Triassic,’ ‘Jurassic’ and ‘Cretaceous,’ which are the three periods of the Mesozoic era.
I used Jacquard’s prepared cotton sateen and adapted the photogram technique to the larger scale, pinning the bags to the fabric, trying to keep the pins discretely hidden in the folds of the bags. This was a literal pain because it takes forever to get enough pins in place and I have to work fast to avoid exposing the fabric prematurely, so I frequently stab myself and have to be careful not to get blood on the fabric. A friend suggested fashion tape – you know the stuff that J Lo uses to keep her dresses on? There will be more experiments to see how visible that would be in a print. If it works out, I’ll be able to lay out the bags on the fabric during the night and then roll the fabric up in a lightproof bag until conditions are right for exposure, so the process would be less painful and I could do the layout more methodically.
“As it is, I can’t roll up the fabric with the pins in it. Trying to get that bundle into my lightproof bag is like trying to shove a porcupine into a pillowcase!”
I kept the assemblage flat during exposure by staking out a large tarp in my backyard and pinning the fabric to it. Working in the full sun at high noon, my biggest challenge during this part of the process was not dripping sweat on the fabric – since water stops the exposure it would have left white spots on the final piece.
Fabric turned out to be easier to rinse than paper, even in these enormous pieces – it’s stronger, much more flexible, and can handle folding and crumpling – so I use an old cooler and a plastic storage tub, filling them with a garden hose.
I’ll agitate the fabric in the water until the water is yellow, then move the fabric into the other container of clean water, empty, rinse and refill the first container, repeating the process until the water stays clear. I pin the fabric back on the tarp until it isn’t dripping wet and then hang it indoors to dry fully.
My mother-in-law is an expert seamstress and hemmed the banners for me. The banner in this photo is folded in half but it gives you an idea of the scale.
For the next phase of the Panthalassic project, I have been experimenting with double-exposure cyanotypes, mostly using Jacquard’s prepared fabric as it’s so much easier to work with in my improvised outdoor studio. (And if I want to use the kitchen sink I have to do the dishes first.)
I expose the plastic bags, as usual, rinse and dry the fabric, and then re-coat it with cyanotype solution. Then I set my hand or foot over the re-coated piece and make another exposure, usually about 5 minutes. I have to mow the lawn to use my feet, or the grass throws shadows on the print, so I generally do my hands. I almost always use my left hand, so I can play Wordle and scroll through Instagram while I’m sitting there.
Double-exposure cyanotype process
I’ve tried it the other way around as well, exposing my hand first and then the bags, and it doesn’t seem to make much difference. I often do a final rinse in hydrogen peroxide because as I mentioned earlier, I’m impatient.
It’s winter now, and I live in Maine, so the sun is too low in the sky for good exposure and it’s too cold to process cyanotypes outdoors, so the project is on hold until spring. When the weather warms, I’ll resume the experiments. Right now, the double-exposed area is very dark, and I plan to try different exposure times to make the plastic bags more visible outside the silhouetted hand. Once I have the technique down, I’ll use it on the large-scale banners, lying on the banner myself, so the end result will be a human silhouette filled with plastic bags.