Category Archives: Fiona Annis

Super Saturday: Cyanotype Sun Prints

On Saturday, August 17th, the CRAG is hosting a very special Super Saturday. Drop by the studio any time from 1 to 3 pm to make your own cyanotype sun print. This all-ages activity is open to the public and cost is by donation. All materials and instruction will be provided.

Transport yourself back in time to the 1840s as cameras and photographs we just being invented. Join us for an afternoon of art-making so you too can learn how to make an image without a camera and with no lengthy developing process in a darkroom required – imagine that!

With the right chemicals, you can quickly produce a silhouette image on any paper. By placing an object directly on the sensitized paper and exposing it to light, the chemical reaction creates a “negative” effect. The background becomes the darkened blue areas because it is  exposed to the sun, while the surface that is covered by the object remains white. The contrast allows you to see the exact size and shape of the object. Watch the colour develop before your eyes and when you are satisfied, simply rinse with water to stop the developing. 

Fiona Annis, Da Corpo a Spirito. 3 cyanotype photograms, 2017.

Even though there is no camera involved in the making of a photogram, the “photographer” still needs some technical know-how – there is no “automatic” setting. Not to worry; our team will guide you through it, and there are no wrong answers when we are experimenting with new art-making techniques. Factors to contend with will include the strength and angle of the sun’s rays and the length of time the sensitized paper is exposed to the light. 

Man Ray, Untitled Rayograph. Gelatin silver photogram, 1922, 23.5 x 17.8 cm.
Man Ray, a 20th-century American artist who worked in Paris, created “rayographs” using a similar photogram technique with a different light-sensitive material.

Silhouettes aren’t the only effects that you can achieve with the photogram method. You can experiment with using objects that have transparent areas, which will let a small amount of light through and create a lighter blue shade where the paper is partially exposed to the sunlight. Taking inspiration from Fiona’s Désastre series, try crumpling the paper before exposing it to the light. Some of the surfaces will get more exposure than others, creating a beautiful abstract texture that resembles a landscape or map. 

Fiona Annis, Désastre (finding North). Archival inkjet print from silver gelatin negative, 2018.

We hope that this hands-on activity will spark your interest in the possibilities of using historical techniques to create unique and beautiful images in the 21st century. Make sure to revisit our current exhibition to compare your results to Annis’s photographic explorations. Fiona Annis: a portion of that which was once everything is on at the CRAG until September 4th.

Fiona Annis: Micro & Macro

Much of Fiona Annis’s artistic practice is centred around the principle of experimentation. The act of viewing these works, or visiting an exhibit for that matter, is something of an experiment in and of itself. You may have expectations, big or small; you may be an expert on the subject or wander in by chance. Either way, you are hoping to gain something – entertainment, knowledge, fulfillment. When you take the leap to experience something new, you can encounter the unexpected.

Often when we visit art galleries and museums, we are surprised by the scale of objects. In a digital world where high-quality images are accessible at our fingertips and virtual reality experiences are becoming more common-place, there is still something to be said for the physical presence of an artwork. Our hope is that this exhibition can become a space for contemplation, a place to get lost in, where each corner is a moment waiting to be discovered. 

Exhibition view.

This practice of viewing is an act of curiosity. As this exhibition combines explorations from several of Annis’s series, pertinent connections can arise from seeing the artworks in conversation with one another. The two tiny works in the series require a close inspection to see the soft gradation in tone. Perched above the shelf with books waiting to be read, the pair invites a leisurely pace of looking. At a distance, the larger piece appears to be a field of white, set off against the deep blue wall. The subtleties of the texture are only visible at an intimate distance. By the time you are close enough to see, the image dominates your field of vision. A gently sloping line punctuates the right side of all three pieces, forming a rhythm within the grouping that could not be communicated by looking at digital images alone. The juxtaposition of the sizes of these works reinforces their shared forms and animates the space.

The notion that something so small can make a big impact lies at the heart of many scientific disciplines like chemistry and astronomy. Take, for example, the chemical reactions that occur on a molecular level when developing photos that result in a crisp image. The same light that is distilled by a camera lens and captured on film has travelled millions of kilometres (149.6 to be exact) from the sun to produce an image. As astronomer Carl Sagan explained, we are all made of “star stuff” – the tiny elemental particles that make up our bodies was created by stars billions of years ago, connecting us to the cosmos in a profound way.  

You may come away from this exhibit with more questions than answers- These infinite possibilities are what make astronomy and art so compelling.

Fiona Annis: a portion of that which was once everything is on at the CRAG until September 4th.

Accident, miracle, or coincidence?

Exhibition view.

Even though much of Fiona Annis’s photographic work does not make use of a camera body per se, she finds herself collecting old cameras that are given to her. She is certainly interested in the effects that historical photographic processes can produce and the many variables that leave the final image up to chance. This pair of works incidentally were created using cameras, though in a wholly unexpected way. 

She was recently gifted two 8” x 10” large-format cameras from a family who no longer had a use for them. She discovered that they were both still loaded with unexposed film. The material is highly sensitive to light, so inevitably throughout its years inside the camera some light leaks occurred. The photographic effect over such a long time serves as a unique moment of discovery. The final result is not dissimilar to her other images, such as the “desastre” series, but the process is much less involved on the part of the artist. Like much of Annis’s work in this exhibition, they are a portal to the past, a moment of contact with an outdated mode of photography which invites us to re-examine our conceptions of it as an artistic medium.

The side-by-side pairing gives context to each other, revealing similarities and subtle differences that are a murky record of the film’s lifespan. Annis could not re-create the same effect unless she had half a century’s worth of patience and time as well as identical materials and conditions. These works speak to the paradox of photography’s capacity to capture and obscure.

Originally developed in the mid-19th century, large-format cameras were only popular until the mid-20th century. The features of the camera structure allowed the photographer to have greater control over the image’s perspective and focus, though they required an extensive knowledge of photography to operate. Capturing an image using a large-format camera is a lengthy and laborious process, but the camera itself is as deceivingly simple as this pair of works.

Chambres obscure de voyage (“dark rooms of travel”), illustration from Les Merveilles de la science, 1867 – 1891, Tome 6, by Guillaume Louis Figuier.

Large-format cameras are just that, large. They must be mounted on a tripod or other base, as they are heavy and cumbersome. Everything must be adjusted manually, requiring both hands to focus, operate an external light meter and control the exposure time. Two panels, called “standards,” make up the back and front of the camera body. The front standard holds the lens and shutter, while the rear holds the rear lens cell, glass viewing plate and film. The standards are connected by a flexible light-proof bellows which is folded like an accordion to allow the standards to be manipulated independently. The image can be seen upside-down on a ground glass sheet set on the plane of focus at the back of the camera, often under a dark cloth with the use of a magnification tool, so the photographer can see to adjust the focus and composition even in bright conditions.

Ansel Adams, The Tetons and the Snake River. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1942. National Archives and Records Administration, 519904; Records of the National Park Service, 79-AAG-1.

The horizontal and vertical movements of the front standards and lens are referred to as rise and fall, shift, swing and tilt. Because the lens plane can move independently, the plane of focus is not fixed vertically. To get sharp focus further back without a very narrow aperture as would be desirable for landscape photography, the plane of focussed can be shifted downwards. The rise technique (moving the front standard vertically) would allow an architectural photographer to avoid converging lines and distortion of tall buildings. 

Large-format cameras require lenses with a longer focal length (the longer the focal length, the closer the object will appear to be), so the photographer must “stop down,” or use narrower aperture to achieve the same depth of field. A slower shutter speed is then also needed in order to let in more light, making it difficult to capture movement.

Yousuf Karsh, Self Portrait. Ottawa, Ontario, 1938.  Library and Archives Canada, PA-212511.
Karash was a well-known Armenian-Canadian portrait photographer.

The title of Annis’s works, “darkslide,” refers to an inner part of the large-format camera apparatus. It is the protective piece that shields the film from unwanted incoming light through the lens before and after the shutter release. 

Once the photographer is satisfied with the image, the glass is removed and replaced with the film holder. After setting the aperture and shutter speed, the darkslide can then be removed and replaced once the shutter triggered. The exposed film is then removed, safely inside the film holder. While a standard film camera uses 35mm film slides in a roll, large-format film consists of sheets that must be loaded individually in a darkroom or changing bag. Each slide is also developed individually, allowing control over optimal contrast, but is also time-consuming. A 4” x 5” or 8” x 10” negative can produce contact prints, without the use of an enlarger, creating high-quality images.

Fiona Annis: a portion of that which was once everything is on at the CRAG until September 4th.

To Infinity & Beyond: Contemplating the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Through Photography

On July 11th, the CRAG hosted an enlightening discussion with astronomer Tony Puerzer from the Nanaimo Astronomy Society and artist Fiona Annis. Their dialogue revealed several historical anecdotes that illuminate the deep inter-relation between astronomy and photography. Though the development of the camera owes much to astronomy, the reverse is also true.

One-third of the Earth’s sphere illuminated, taken from the Apollo 11 spcecraft. NASA,16—24 July 1969, AS11-44-6689.

July 20th, 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo mission’s lunar landing. It was the images and video footage of the event that so thoroughly captured the public imagination. Images taken during the flight of Earth seen from a different perspective still, after fifty years, provoke a poetic sense of our small place in the universe.

The expansion of the capabilities of human sight has always driven astronomy. Save for a few lucky astronauts, all of our experiences of space are photographic. Proof of Einstein’s theory of relativity was established when Arthur Eddington captured an image of a solar eclipse on a glass plate in 1919, showing that gravity causes light to bend around stars and galaxies. For centuries, astronomers have relied on photography to understand our universe, and even then we are limited in the extent of space and time that we can possibly see. This is one of the central concepts in Annis’s work – to question and embrace these limitations.

Fiona Annis, Double Moon Crossing. C-print enlargement of wet plate collodion, 2016.

This striking image is one of the only formal works in the predominantly abstract exhibition. Annis described being inspired by a talk given by Dr. Sarah Gallagher, the Science Advisor to the Canadian Space Agency. The audience was asked to imagine standing on the surface of Jupiter, looking out at its multiple moons crossing the night sky. Jupiter’s moons were discovered by Galileo in 1610 through his powerful telescope that could reveal objects not visible to the naked eye. This was a major breakthrough that questioned the theory that all celestial bodies revolve around the Earth.

The CRAG is in good company this summer – The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition on our conception of the moon and how it developed through art over the centuries, aptly debuting this summer to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

Consider the comparisons below between Annis’s work and images of the surface of the moon from the Apollo 11 mission. What mysteries do they contain?

Fiona Annis: a portion of that which was once everything is on at the CRAG until September 4th. We hope you stop by to experience the wonder of Annis’s photographic explorations.

Fiona Annis: Knowledge is Futile

To speak of knowledge is futile. All is experiment and adventure. We are forever mixing ourselves in unknown quantities.

-Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931.

The artist, Fiona Annis, often works closely with text and sources from literature ranging from science fiction to philosophy. With curator Vicky Chainey Gagnon, she has selected five quotes to be interspersed with her images in the exhibition space. Our hope is that these quotes can function like the discovery of an intriguing document buried deep in an archive. As you ponder these ideas, you will be bringing the images into a complex dialogue that embraces the unknown.

Exhibition view.

As Woolf explains, it is easy to get lost in the chaos of an endless and ever-changing expanse of information. Does gaining more knowledge simply complicate our view of the world? It often seems that the more we look at art, the more we gather endless amounts of data, a clear pattern never forms, always adding new exceptions to the rule. This skepticism and poetic sensibility underpins much of Annis’s work.

Science is also rooted in this deep fascination with the unknown. Though we often think of science as classifying, discovering, measuring, pushing the limits of observation requires curiosity and imagination. We cannot see the chemical reactions of photographic development on the molecular level, nor can we see the gravitational forces at work in our solar system, yet we wonder at the tangible results and seek to understand them. There is still so much we don’t know, as we continue to explore the human brain, the depths of the ocean, and the furthest reaches of the universe. We can expand our understanding of knowledge beyond empirical data to include inherited knowledge and creative expression.

Science and art both continually grapple with new ways to capture, explain, or represent. Fiona’s work questions whether this is a futile endeavour, providing rich territory for contemplation in this exhibit. Even though she is engaged with the process of learning, her art does not provide easy answers. It calls us to search for meaning in a multitude of places and accept that knowledge is not the ultimate goal, but rather to revel in the wonder and mystery of the unknown.

Fiona Annis, Désastre (finding North). Archival inkjet print from silver gelatin negative, 2018.

This stunning print is part of a series exploring the creative possibilities of the mythological conception of chaos. Annis’s interest in astronomy and alchemy informed this study of the transformation of matter. Annis subjected light-sensitive silver gelatin paper to crushing and other manual manipulation in the darkroom, resulting in these textural abstract forms.

Fiona Annis: a portion of that which was once everything is on at the CRAG now until September 4, 2019.

Time and Space: Fiona Annis

Fiona Annis, In the elsewhere of the event (cold river). Silver gelatin print, 5″ x 4″, 2018.

Many of the works in this exhibition were completed in advance of Annis’s Naples residency, underscoring the importance of experimentation in the creative and scientific process. Think of how the many variations of photographic technique came to be developed. These discoveries required much study, experimentation and imagination.

Silver gelatin printing refers to the material that is printed upon, usually paper, that is manufactured with layers of light-sensitive material. This printing method was developed in the late 19th century so the printing material could be used years after it was made, rather than the wet-plates which had to be used right away. The effect is typically a monochrome black and white image. 

Three women and a man working in a photography darkroom, Washington, 1911. University of Washington Special Collections, Industries and Occupations Photographs Collection, accession no. 546.

The paper is coated with several layers to maintain the stability of the image. The base layer, the baryta, is opaque white gelatin and barium sulfate which provides a smooth base. The middle layer is the gelatin binder that holds the silver grains (silver bromide and silver chloride) that form the image, topped by a protective layer of hardened gelatin. 

During exposure, light causes a chemical reaction, reducing the silver halides to silver metal. The areas where more light is let through the negative or the area around the object if contact printing, become the shadows or darker areas of the print. This latent invisible image is made visible by the chemical development. After a stop bath, the fixer (sodium thiosulfate) binds with the unexposed silver halide which can then be washed away by water, leaving the silver particles behind forming the image.

As we dig deeper into the intersections of photography and astronomy, we can complexify and question the hierarchical conception of progress and the future. By diversifying the techniques in her artistic practice, Annis brings forth the value of knowledge from the past and in turn creates new knowledge, or even something altogether unknowable. Thus, time can be fluid and subjective, not just linear.

Photography can make visual the way that we experience time – the past is experienced in the present and the present is preserved for the future. When we think about a photograph, we think of a singular moment, a tiny fraction of a second, frozen in time. Often, historical photographic processes required exposures (the time it takes for the light to form the image) that lasted several minutes. Even the light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach our eyes. This time is collapsed, lost to us.

We hope that you can experience this shift in perception when you see these works in person. Please join us this Thursday, July 11th, from 7 to 9 pm for our opening reception. The artist will be in attendance to introduce her works.

Fiona Annis: a portion of that which once was everything


Fiona Annis, Da Corpo a Spirito. 3 cyanotype photograms, 2017.

This triptych is deceivingly simple- three shapes floating in blue squares. What are these mysterious forms? Underwater creatures, meteorites, dust specks? Could they be “portion(s) of that which once was everything,” chance pieces broken off of a whole? The exhibition title, a portion of that which was once everything, was chosen to move beyond binary thinking, and evoke the notion that at the heart of things we are simply (and extraordinarily) complexified star dust.

The recognizable blue pigment that dominates these photographic prints is produced by the 19th-century cyanotype technique. The famous and perhaps the first female photographer Anna Atkins published the first book illustrated with photographic images with her cyanotypes of biology specimens in 1843. 

These images are actually photograms, made without a camera. By applying objects directly to coated paper, the light directly creates a silhouette. A photosensitive solution of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide is applied to a surface, usually paper. The chemical reactions results in the insoluble Prussian Blue dye. Exposures can take 10 to 20 minutes. The remaining undeveloped yellow iron solution is then rinsed away, letting the blue dye darken as it dries.

Anna Atkins, “Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state; and in fruit,” Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Cyanotype photogram, 1843. New York Public Library,

What does an image of something we can see and hold satisfy for us? A record like a photograph can preserve and replicate an ephemeral object. However, the record is limited in what qualities of the object it can record. Paradoxically, a photogram (made without a camera) is less mediated than a typical photograph (where the camera stands between the photographer or viewer and the subject), but the object is more obscured, only revealing its outline without depth or colour. Going even further, can the document reveal in this process of transference something that the object’s physical presence does not?

Big questions like these loom in Annis’s work. What underpins the drive to explain our existence? Think back to the title of the triptych, meaning “from body to spirit” in Italian. Just as a photograph distills an object’s physical qualities (the “body”) to intangible knowledge (the “spirit”) through the process of semiotics, so too can astronomy’s depth of knowledge about our universe inform spirituality and philosophy.

Historically, astronomical discoveries have been linked to debates such as Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic church. Take, for example, the magnificent achievement of the recent photo of a black hole. These advancements are continually changing our perspective on the universe and our collective imagination, not unlike art. As we look outwards to the sky and beyond, we must also look inward at ourselves – where is our place in the world?

Join us Saturday, July 13th from 2 to 3:30 pm in the main gallery for a one-on-one dialogue between artist Fiona Annis and Tony Puerzer from the Nanaimo Astronomy Society to explore these rich themes further. Cost is a $5 donation to the CRAG.

Upcoming Exhibit: Fiona Annis

Phōtós – graphê

drawing with light”

We are looking forward to hosting Montreal-based artist Fiona Annis to the CRAG this summer in a thought-provoking solo show of her recent photographic work. This exhibition, Fiona Annis: a portion of that which once was everything, will run from July 11 to September 4. 

Annis recently completed a residency at the Museum of Astronomical Instruments in Naples, Italy where she explored the celestial themes of light and time and their relevance to photography. She combines and manipulates historical photographic techniques to create compelling images that challenge our conceptions of abstract art and photography. Her images are purposefully mysterious – we hope to provoke your curiosity to explore the unknown through this exhibit.

Double Moon Crossing, 2016, C-print enlargement of wet plate collodion, 30 x 30 in.

This image’s stark contrast of light and dark is thematic of Annis’ work. The central circles are clearly referenced by the title, prompting us to imagine planets and stars traversing the night sky in the abstract shapes, much like how we search for meaning in constellations. A closer look reveals various anomalies from the printing process. These peculiar forms in many of her works are actually a record of movements and light in the darkroom during the exposure process rather than an image of a physical object, bringing the unseen temporal aspect of photography to the fore as the subject.

Compare Annis’s work with a photograph of a lunar eclipse.

This image was produced using the wet-plate collodion process which was invented in the 1850s. It produces a clear, reusable negative on inexpensive glass. The hand-processed plates use silver nitrate, requiring Annis to rely on 19th-century recipes to mix the chemicals. The entire process from the few-seconds-long exposure to the image development in the darkroom must be completed in under 15 minutes. The chemicals are sensitive to blue UV light, making the images show up darkened in areas where warm colours would be and without differentiation between blue and whites.

Charles Bayliss and Bernard Holtermann, Lavender Bay, Sydney Harbour, 1875, collodion glass negative. State Library of New South Wales.

A “c-print” refers to a colour printing technique known as chromogenic printing, developed in the early 20th century. Three separate layers of gelatin with light-sensitive silver halide emulsion are first exposed. Colour developer and dye coupler are then added which oxidizes on the exposed silver to form the dye. A different dye (yellow, magenta, and cyan) is produced on each layer, resulting in a full-colour image.

Arts and sciences are often considered to be polar opposites, but there remains an inherent curiosity that drives creative expression and the quest for knowledge. This crossover is also evidenced by the material history of photography, namely the development of astronomical instruments such as telescopic lenses which were used in early cameras. Both astronomy and photography are still striving to expand the human capability for seeing and understanding. Annis’s work reveals just that. 

By using historical techniques, Annis can evoke a sense of mystery and wonder. However, photography was used to scientifically record from the beginning, not just as a creative medium. There were even debates as to whether photography could be considered an art, as it simply “replicated” reality without an artist’s hand. We now know that a photograph doesn’t fully capture reality as we experience it. By examining the process of photography and our historical relationship with it, Annis calls to attention how we so easily take our perception of reality for granted. 

Annis is interested in exploring and capturing what lies beyond the visible and observable.  Photography can make visible what isn’t to the naked eye through advancements in technology, just as art has the same capacity to express emotion and imagination.

View finder (the room of time), Museum of Astronomical Instruments (Naples, Italy), 2019, C-print, 10 x 8 in.

We invite you to attend the opening reception on Thursday, July 11 from 7 to 9 pm.

We will also be hosting an artist’s talk and guided tour with Fiona Annis and local astronomer Tony Puerzer from the Nanaimo Astronomy Society on Saturday July 13th from 2 to 3 pm in the main gallery. This event will open the interdisciplinary dialogue between the art and science communities and explore the complex meanings behind Annis’s images.