Foundations in Blue


By Tanya Silverman

Deciding. Cyanotype. Unique Print. Image by Brenton Hamilton.

“The blue lets me create an alternate reality,” Brenton Hamilton says of his cyanotype art.

A visual artist and historian of photography, Hamilton’s chosen specialty is cyanotypes, a contact print process that dates back to 1842. He creates surreal collages “from ransacking art history and re-creating figures and landscapes” into “dreamscapes… floating in blue spaces.”

Imagery of botany, anatomy, and classical statues are often meshed into his finished prints. These serene blue scenes may be back-dropped by ancient architectural ruins, cast with skeletal structures or human organs, and detailed with twining leaves or erratic fruits.

As apparent as the influence of art history is in Hamilton’s cyanotypes, part of his inspiration comes from his natural surroundings of coastal Maine, in an effort to mirror “the ocean outside his studio window and blue-black depths of the night sky.” Elementally speaking, there’s also the sun; cyanotypes require UV ray exposure, so the process grants him the opportunity to work under the “bright” and “brilliant” rays. At times, Hamilton will apply gum washes or other materials to the prints to alter the color.

Also an educator and lecturer, there are several phases in foundational photography that Hamilton favors discussing. One was the differences between photographic mediums in use during the mid-1800s. There was the French daguerreotype on metal plates, which Hamilton describes as singular, unique, heavy, and delicate. Another option was the British “paper calotypes, which were negative and repeatable but not sharp and indistinct.”

He explains that an incredible argument arose “in public discourse about which one was better and why,” and interestingly enough, artists, painters, engravers, and task professionals started “gravitating toward the British process–the works on paper–because they looked more like a picture.”

Another pivotal year he likes to highlight is 1851, as it was when “photography was carried to glass and glass negatives were” created. The 1880s were also an important time with the onset of flexible film because photography was made available to everyone.

Unsurprisingly, Hamilton makes art using other historic techniques, some works of which are currently on display at Maine Media. Hamilton describes the exhibition as an “homage in the age of technology.” The gallery walls show 13 works of his tin types, glass ambrotypes “along with “paper negatives [created] the same way that William Fox Talbot made in the late 1830s in England.”

In the contemporary digital era we experience, Hamilton says that oftentimes people hardly “know what a negative is in the traditional sense anymore because they don’t need to,” which he finds somewhat astounding, given the fact that negatives are durable objects. His artistic and educational efforts are largely intended to educate people on these legacies.

20th Dada Sketch. Cyanotype. Unique Print. Image by Brenton Hamilton.

Hamilton has worked at Maine Media labs for over two decades. Though he specializes in history, the lab also serves as an artistic venue to fuse the old photography techniques with contemporary technology. One practice they execute is producing negatives by reaping files from a digital camera or scan, then outputting them on a transparency cell. After digital negatives are rendered onto transparent materials, he says, artists can print the images on platinum, gold, and silver.

“The 21st century and the 19th century ideas really meet in the labs we have here,” he says. “I think that in many ways it’s the future of photography as this conversation goes on. It excites me how these two ideas and these century-apart techniques need one another in a certain way.”

For more, check out Tanya’s conversation with Brenton on this week’s episode of the Third Eye Weekly podcast on BTR.