John Isner has been an avid photographer since his late teens. From the start, the goal of photography for him has always been the print. Whether it was a darkroom print he made in an improvised darkroom in his parents’ home, the print that he got back from the photo lab, or the print that he made on a high-end digital inkjet printer when he was able to afford one, he has always been attracted to the seemingly magical process by which a film or digital image is transformed into a physical object that people can hold in their hands and enjoy. Posting digital images online has never appealed to John.
Interview and videography by Chris Chavez of Nine4 Films
In 2016 John took a course in alternative photographic processes at Pima Community College. The course introduced six different historical printing processes, some dating as far back as the 1840s. Since ‘Alt Process’ is all about printing, it naturally appealed to him. After trying his hand at each of the processes, he settled on cyanotype. His cyanotypes have been shown in galleries and have been accepted by many juried competitions.
The cyanotype process was invented in 1842 by the English scientist Sir John Herschel. Watercolor paper is coated with organic salts of iron that are sensitive to ultraviolet light. The sensitized paper is overlaid with a negative, placed in a contact print frame, and exposed to an ultraviolet light source. During exposure, the print develops a distinctive Prussian blue color in proportion to the amount of exposure received. Cyanotype is known as “printing-out process” because the image appears during exposure. Wet processing serves only to clear the unexposed sensitizer, with no chemical developer required. Cyanotype is the simplest alternative printing process. It is often said of cyanotype that “it takes minutes to learn but a lifetime to master.”
Cyanotypes are reminiscent of the engineering blueprints John worked with in the early days of his career as a civil engineer. It is perhaps because of this association that he found cyanotype particularly well-suited to architectural subjects, both representational and abstract. The bulk of his work since 2016 has been architectural. He works in series of 10-12 prints. Each series typically takes six months, requiring many visits to the site followed by many hours of printmaking. He has produced series on the award-winning Ventana Vista Elementary School in Tucson, Biosphere 2, Kitt Peak National Observatory, and six different modern housing developments by developer Pepper-Viner.
John shot the Biosphere 2 series with a medium format film camera because he wanted the discipline of shooting architectural details in square format. He used a digital infrared camera to shoot Kitt Peak because at 7000 feet, infrared renders skies perfectly black. He shot the Pepper-Viner series with a combination of infrared and color digital photography and printed it with a process he developed, which he calls “Cyanotype over Pigment Ink.” During the lockdown of 2020, he produced a series called “Studies in Color Harmony” consisting of Cyanotype over Pigment Ink prints of landscapes from his Lightroom archive (see online article about this process).
Some technical details: John uses two Epson P400 printers. One is dedicated to making digital negatives with Piezography ink. He calibrates his digital negatives using PiezoDN software and prints them on Pictorico Ultra OHP using QuadToneRIP. He uses his other P400 for making color prints, which he then overprints in cyanotype. It is an unmodified Epson printer that uses Epson Ultrachrome pigment ink and prints with the standard Epson printer driver. He makes the color prints on Arches Platine watercolor paper. He uses New Cyanotype chemistry, an improved version of the 1842 formula developed by Mike Ware in 1995. He exposes in a UV exposure unit with fifteen black light fluorescent bulbs. People are often surprised to hear that you can make a color pigment print on non-inkjet paper and wash it for forty minutes without substantial fading. You can! John does it all the time.