CLOSER VIEW: Tom Fels | Atlas

Committed to the artists, collectors and galleries connected to our annual fair, we are supporting our community through PHOTOFAIRS PRESENTS, a series of digital initiatives to help keep discovering and collecting photo-based art thriving within Shanghai and beyond. 

Earlier this month we launched PHOTOFAIRS PRESENTS: Cyanotype, an online exhibition showcasing artwork by 16 visual pioneers using the alternative photographic printing technique. 

To coincide with the digital display, we’re posting a series of interviews, case studies, behind the scenes image essays and opinion pieces by each of the featured artists. Today Tom Fels contributes to Closer View, a piece that aims to shed light on the artist’s creative thinking and unique approach to the cyanotype process. He reveals more...

My cyanotype series stems from a lengthy engagement with a single subject: the shadows that are cast on my house by a tree in my back garden. I’d tried to capture the scene through pencil drawings and photographs. The photographs proved quite successful, but the dark forms were somewhat diluted by the distracting presence of their background and surroundings. The images didn't satisfy my desire to capture the spirit of the shadows. When I discovered the availability of large-scale cyanotype paper, the project was taken in a new direction. 

Cyanotype was a medium I was familiar with through my experience with 19th century photographs. I’d been working for many years as an independent curator and writer specialising in American culture, photography and art. I’ve collaborated with a number of museums, including the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Throughout my career I’ve been able to work directly with photographs by Carleton Watkins, A. J. Russell, Eadweard Muybridge, and other masters of 19th century photography. One of the first books I reviewed was on Anna Atkins, one of the earliest artists to make successful use of the cyanotype process.

When dealing with cyanotypes in my own work, one of the first surprises was that the shadows I was initially interested in capturing were not strong enough to create the images I wanted. I realised I would have to take a different approach. 

Valuing the idea of shadows over the specific scene I had been attempting to portray, and noting that to create enough contrast the subject needed to touch, or at least nearly touch, the paper during exposure, I hit on the idea of taking large cyanotype paper directly into trees. 

The results were stunning. In a second surprise, they of course, due to wind and my own sometimes unsure movement, also recorded a certain amount of motion, making them in several ways quite different than anything I had expected or had even seen before.

My cyanotypes are cameraless photographs. There is no negative; each artwork is unique. The prints are life-sized, 1:1 scale renderings of their natural subject matter, obtained directly outdoors. The Arbor, Catalpa, and other series are thus at once both empirical and romantic. 

The result of a technical process dependent on light and chemistry alone, they can be regarded on one level as simply unmanipulated records of the organic world. On another they are richly suggestive, capturing a deeply evocative sense of motion and form. 

A reviewer observed, ‘[The prints] evoke the touch and movement of a friendly breeze.’ For many viewers, the characteristic blue cyanotype color lends a meditative tone to the works. I like the process myself, in part because it is so simple: no darkroom, no camera. I do most of the work outdoors, wash with water and dry the prints overnight inside.

In the Autumn season, as leaves disappear but the sun is still relatively strong, I also make cyanotypes on the ground or on my porch, with branches or leaves cut for purpose. In both cases I look at the significance of composition which has to take place in a very short time, as related to the concept of chance put forth by John Cage or in the ancient Chinese divination text I Ching, that an arrangement of leaves or notes can signify something of the moment in which they were assembled. To what extent this constitutes an innovation, I can’t say. It certainly was a fortuitous discovery for me.

Enjoy a selection of Tom Fels artwork in PHOTOFAIRS PRESENTS: Cyanotype