The four “portraits” in the series The Fall of the Leaf represent specimens in the most severe decline and incorporate both cyanotype and gold leaf as a way to elevate the plants, honor the specimens, and preserve what we have lost. The reflective surface of the gold acts as a mirror, allowing the viewer to see themselves in the artwork and the world around them. Similar to 19th century oval gilded portrait paintings, the cyanotypes are printed directly onto glass in reference to glass plate negatives from the mid 1800’s.
The specimens for the plant portraits are, from left to right: Whorled Milkwort Polygala verticillata HUH #GH872395 Blue-bead Lily Clintonia borealis HUH #GH01083896 Woodland Sunflower Helianthus divaricatus HUH #GH872840 Wavy Leaf Aster Symphyotrichum
Sobsey’s multidisciplinary photographic practice reaches into the fields of science, design, installation and textile. Her photo-based work explores the natural world through archives and taxonomies with an experimental and materials-based approach to the medium of photography. Often partnering with scientists, she uses a historical, scientific, and artistic lens, to understand the connection to plant and animal loss as one indication of the larger climatological perils we face as a species.
She is interested in creating dialog between art and science and has spent the last decade-plus photographing specimens from National Park and University museum collections across the country to understand climate change and species loss. Sobsey works in 19th-century photographic processes combined with digital technology with a specialty in plant-based printing techniques.
In this exhibition, as an homage to 19th century photographer and botanist Anna Atkins, she focuses on cyanotype, a 19th century photographic process that relies on UV light to create a distinctive Prussian blue tone.
In 1842, Sir John Herschel developed the cyanotype process, a photographic printing process that produces a cyanblue print. It employs two chemicals, ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, to produce an image. Some of the earliest cyanotypes were created in 1843 by British botanist, Anna Atkins. Often considered the world’s first female photographer, Atkins produced the scientific reference book, British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. This seminal publication was one of the first uses of light-sensitive materials to illustrate a book. The cyanotype method was used to create the book’s traditional letterpress prints and handwritten text, as well as its illustrations. Atkins printed and published Part 1 of British Algae in 1843 and in doing so established photography as an accurate medium for scientific illustration.
For a traveling exhibition, new glass prints and wallpaper can be created to fit the exhibition space.
The Dispersion of Seeds series utilizes all of the 648 digitized Thoreau specimens located at Harvard University’s Gray Herbarium in the creation of the wallpaper that speaks to the integration of digital and analog technology as a tool for image making and data sharing. The wallpaper consists of original cyanotypes and digital imagery intermingled. The dark cyan represents the specimens in decline and the light cyan represents specimens that are surviving and/or thriving.
“Blue," Rebecca Solnit wrote in one of humanity’s most beautiful reflections on our planet’s primary hue, is “the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here… the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world,” a world of many blues —
A pioneering 19th-century nomenclature of colors listed eleven kinds of blue, in hues as varied as the color of the flax-flower and the throat of the blue titmouse and the stamina of a certain species of anemone. Darwin took this guide with him on The Beagle in order to better describe what he saw. We name in order to see better and apprehend only what we know how to name, how to think about.
In the living world beneath our red-ravenous atmosphere, blue is the rarest color: There is no naturally occurring true blue pigment in nature. In consequence, only a slender portion of plants bloom in blue and an even more negligible number of animals are bedecked with it, all having to perform various tricks with chemistry and the physics of light, some having evolved astonishing triumphs of structural geometry to render themselves blue”
— Maria Popova