UV light connect between art of photography and science of robots

Art and science have seen overlap in terms of the presence of UV light exposure, whether used in the creation of alternative photographic process or to disinfect places.

by Dilpreet Bhullar Published on : Aug 26, 2020

The French-American photographer-painter Edward Steichen, in one of the letters to the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz while discussing techniques of his photographic prints mentioned, “Another one – Moonrise [Mamaroneck, New York, 1904, pi. 35] in three printings: first printing, grey black plat[inum] — 2nd, ‘plain blue print [cyanotype](secret)’ [—] 3rd, greenish gum.” Like the late 19th century art movement Symbolism, of which Steichen was an ardent practitioner and that could not find its voice amongst other frequently practised artistic styles, the alternative photographic process cyanotype, achieved through the exposure to the UV lights, for the longest of the times was disregarded as an easiest way to produce the photograph with a little less to offer in terms of technical abilities.

From Anna Atkins’ 'British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions between 1843 and 1853' | Anna Atkins | STIRworld
From Anna Atkins’ British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions between 1843 and 1853 Image: Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The term cyanotype, with quintessential Prussian blue, carries a Greek etymology, where ‘cyan’ could be translated as a dark-blue impression. The British astronomer and chemist John Frederick Herschel in 1842 conducted an experiment that produced the blue-tinted prints or cyanotypes when the iron compounds are exposed to the UV lights. The English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, who was friends with Herschel, produced the first book with photographs or cyanotypes to illustrate a variety of plants and microorganism. Considered as the first woman photographer, Atkins brought together the disciplines of art and science to publish three volumes of photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions between 1843 and 1853. As soon as the black and white photographs shrouded the circles of photographers during the First World War, the alternative photographic processes were relegated to the margins.

Cyanotypes by English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins| Anna Atkins | STIRworld
Cyanotypes by English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins Image: Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

If digital photography triggered the interest of a commoner toward photography, it never guaranteed an easy way to achieve creativity or stand as a substitute for aesthetic sensibility. On the other side, the revival of the cyanotypes could not be ignored where the contemporary lens-based artists are giving shape to their conceptual thoughts through cyanotype processes. Leah Sobsey is one such artist who displayed her work Butterflies and Swarms as part of the contemporary cyanotype exhibitions Winter Blues and Murmuration and The Swarm respectively at Center for Photographic Art in California. Sobsey combines digital technology with the 19th century photographic processes in an effort to form a new vocabulary on photography.

Butterflies| Leah Sobsey | STIRworld
Butterflies Image: Courtesy of Leah Sobsey

Practising photographer and director of Museo Camera, Aditya Arya, in an interview with STIR states, “It is amazing to see how the invisible spectrum of light has contributed so much to the evolution of photography by making the processes visible. All the historical processes of photography such as albumen printing, cyanotype and salt-prints have a lot to do with the UV light”. In his last exhibition Tattva: Aravalli Deconstructed, Arya creates works by using the four of the oldest photographic printing processes, and for each of these processes, the natural elements were directly sourced from the Aravalli mountain range: anthotypes (beetroot juice, grasses and weeds), cyanotype (water used in the final stages), gum bichromate (Acacia Senegal) and salt print (salt from Sambhar Lake in Rajasthan).

Gum Bichromate (made out of Acacia Senegal) | Tattva: Aravalli Deconstructed |Aditya Arya | STIRworld
Gum bichromate (made out of Acacia Senegal) Image: Courtesy of Aditya Arya

He further explains the ideas underlining the exhibition. “Tattva is a manifestation of my exploration and experimentation with dimensions of land and its many metaphors. These works evoke a layered dialogue with varied conceptual frameworks from defining moments in the development and evolution of photography. It is a tribute to this unique mountain range and the collection presented here is a result of my exploratory visits over the last few years,” mentions Arya.

Salt Print (made out of salt from Sambhar Lake in Rajasthan)| Tattva: Aravalli Deconstructed |Aditya Arya | STIRworld
Salt print (made out of salt from Sambhar Lake in Rajasthan) Image: Courtesy of Aditya Arya

Interestingly, it was in the 19th century also that the two English scientists, Arthur Downes and Thomas P Blunt discovered that UV light could kill bacteria. To reaffirm the parallel between the art and science, especially when it comes to UV effect, lately, we have witnessed a surge in the demand of the UVD robots to prevent Hospital Acquired Infections and beyond in the times of pandemic crisis. Taking cognizance of the situation, UVD Robots, the Danish Company, with Blue Ocean Robotics as its parent company, has accelerated the making of the autonomous robots that could move around the areas and even take elevators to perform the task of disinfection.

UVD Robots at Hospital | UVD Robots| STIRworld
UVD Robots at Hospital Image: Courtesy of Blue Ocean Robotics

It has an in-build feature of short wavelength ultraviolet-C (UVC) lights, powerful enough to dismember the DNA or RNA chains that constitute the viral genome. UVD Robots CEO, Per Juul Nielsen, in an interview with STIR, explains this phenomenon, “Since the UV-Disinfection robot was introduced on the market, we have had an annual growth of 400 per cent. Thus, we expected a 400 per cent increase in sales for this year as well. However, during the first three months of 2020, we have had to increase that expectation so it is two to three times higher, resulting in even higher expected growth".

Since the uncertainty around the situation is worrisome, one may assume that this is the first instance when the autonomous robots are put to the best use, but Juul Nielsen states, “The UV-Disinfection robot is already deployed frequently, and used for infection prevention, infection control and outbreak control in the healthcare as well as the non-healthcare market”.  

Innovation and collaboration have pushed the boundaries of conceptual thinking in the desperate times of crisis. The usage of UV light is one of the many sharing capacities between the trans-disciplinary practitioners of art and science, which in the coming years holds the potential to emancipate artistic practice from any conventional way of understanding.

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