Kind of Blue

Here’s a small portfolio of Tacoma images created in the distinctive cyanotype process. They are an adaptation of large format lens photography that captures the image on blueprint paper. The prints were quicker to make but transitory and highly vulnerable to sunlight, consequently early images like these are exceedingly rare.

NPHQ rising

There is a chronological story embedded in this group of cyanotypes that traces the process of planning and building the city of Tacoma in the 1880’s. The first image shows Tacoma rising with the construction of the Northern Pacific Railway headquarters on Pacific Avenue. This powerful, haunting image has been shown here and discussed before (Rising, 1887.

Blueprint room.1895

Just a few years later, with the conical towered roof complete, the railroad’s land office on the top floor began turning survey maps and architectural drawings into a permanent city. The next image shows the drafting room and the white collared dreamers who imagined a city still in the process of being realized. Its unusual to see an interior photograph from the 1880’s due to the problem of light but here they are lit by a window behind the camera and captured on the familiar medium of blueprint paper. The portrait seems autobiographical.


In the next image the action has moved out onto the roof where sunlight was used to expose light sensitive blueprint paper to original architectural drawings, hand drawn maps and sometimes photographic negatives. This was fine detail work using chemistry, geometry and solar science. It was alchemy and artistry hand drawn in fastidious india ink lines on starched linen. The large exposure frame is designed with a movable frame to follow the sunlight like a solar panel. The revolving drying tube is rigged to a track so it could also be moved or retracted according to the daylight. The same expert character is on the far right in both pictures complete with his dark sleeve protectors. In the distance the still standing University Union Club hangs off Broadway. The stone church is St. Luke’s Episcopal, built in 1883 and then carefully disassembled and moved to 3601 North Gove Street in 1934. And on the left edge is City Hall which was completed in 1893 and helps date these images to about 1895.

5260.half moon yards

From the same rooftop perch looking north over Commencement Bay, the busy half moon railyards of the Northern Pacific dominate the foreground. The continuous mile long warehouses were still unbuilt and the Prairie Line still found its way through the tangle of sidings to its terminal connection with the NP dock and the Pacific Ocean. This remarkable image shows the wrinkles of a cyanotype paper print and the drama of the transcontinental railroad at its vanishing point conclusion in the center of the view.

1895 Tea train

And speaking of the Prairie Line here’s one of the early tea trains, a locomotive and all of its freight cars committed to the lucrative enterprise of moving tea from Asia to America. On a dead weight basis nothing matched tea in monetary value at the end of the 19th Century. The best engineers and finest locomotives carried the precious cargo east from the wharfs at Tacoma. This tea train is leaving in August 1895 after a short stop to have its picture taken. And by the time a cyanotype print was made at the NP headquarters, it had disappeared.

To dive deeper check out:

Flyer in Blue

Old School Sci-Fi


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