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STEM Activities

STEM Activity: Create Vintage Photographs

Photographs offer the perfect way to capture moments and preserve memories, and learning about photography can give us a fascinating look at a combination of art, science and history.

One fun way to explore this art form is with a vintage photographic printing process known as cyanotype. The name cyanotype comes from the Greek word “cyan,” meaning “dark blue impression.”


Materials Needed:

  • Acrylic sheet
  • Construction paper (blue and other colors)
  • Cyanotype paper
  • Glue
  • Paper towels
  • Pencil
  • Various small, flat objects (like flowers or leaves)


Step-by-Step Instructions:

  1. Gather a variety of flat objects to use on your cyanotype paper, such as flowers, leaves or other items found in nature.

    Be sure the objects fit fully on the paper.
  2. While in the shade or indoors, place your gathered objects on the cyanotype paper.
  3. Once the objects are arranged how you like them, put your acrylic sheet on top of everything to hold your items in place.
  4. Place the paper with the items on it outside in the sun for five to eight minutes. This might take longer if it is a cloudy day.
  5. Carefully take the paper inside with the objects still on it.

    The cyanotype paper should look bleached or be a lighter color than when you started.
  6. Remove the objects and rinse the paper with water until the water runs clear.
  7. Blot your paper dry with paper towels, then lay it flat or hang it up to dry.
  8. Once your cyanotype paper is dry, frame it by gluing it onto the middle of a piece of construction paper.
  9. Cut a small rectangle out of construction paper to use as an artwork label.
  10. Using a pencil, write your name at the top. Underneath your name, write a title for your cyanotype print and add the year in parentheses. Then write the type of art, followed by a description of the art. Your label should read like this:
    • Artist name
    • Title of artwork (year)
    • Cyanotype
    • A description of your artwork
  11. Hang your framed cyanotype print and artwork label.
  12. Invite friends and family to view your art on display!

Tip: Don’t have access to cyanotype paper? Try using blue construction paper instead! Place flat objects on your blue construction paper and leave it in the sun. This process will take longer, but once the construction paper has faded to a lighter color, you can remove the objects to see your design!


What Are We Discovering?

The parts of your cyanotype paper that were exposed to the sun reacted with ultraviolet light and created a dye that cannot be washed away. The spaces that were covered by the objects did not get exposed to sunlight, and therefore did not react with UV light, leaving behind white spaces.

The cyanotype process was created by Jon F.W. Herschel in 1842. In the years following, many new photography processes were invented. For instance, National Inventors Hall of Fame® Inductee Edwin Herbert Land invented instant one-step photography and Inductee George Eastman invented the dry plate photography system.

We have these world-changing inventors to thank for innovations that have led to photography as we know it today!


Keep the Fun and Learning Going!

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