Betty Hahn – Photography or maybe not

Born in Chicago, Betty Hahn completed both her BA and MFA  at Indiana University (Betty Hahn – Google Arts & Culture s.d.). She taught at Rochester Institute of Technology and from 1975 – 77 was professor of photography at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque (Museum of Contemporary Photography s.d.)

Betty Hahn’s work “centers on photography while challenging conventional ideas of the medium and incorporating a range of artistic techniques” (Museum of Contemporary Photography s.d.). These techniques include “appropriation and serial imagery and mediums such as lithography, painting, and embroidery.” (Joseph Bellows Gallery s.d.). This suggests why the retrospective of her work is titled  Betty Hahn: Photography or maybe not (Yates 1995).

I thought of her work when reading Part 3 of the course handbook which suggests students “Take time to experiment with different approaches and methods”. Additionally, as part of feedback from my last assignment my tutor recommended looking at ‘elements of chance’ and possibly “combining selections of image using more accidental methods”.

Hahn’s work uses many sources “both inside and outside photography, to discover qualities and relationships determined by something other than the unique characteristics of a single medium, genre, category, or style” (Yates 1995:5).

Floral images are an area of her work. Her series Cut Flowers  were produced from 1978-87 and are “Cyanotypes, Van Dykes, monotypes, lithographs, photo silkscreens, and colour photographs of syprints, lithographs,  and colour photographs of still life flower arrangements made from 4×5 negatives with applied pastels, acrylic paints, watercolors, felt tip markers, craypas, and metallic watercolors” (Yates 1995:185)

Blue Chrysanthemum #1 from 1978 is a cyanotype with the addition of marks in pastel and colored pencil
Branch of 3 Iris from 1984 is a cyanotype with watercolour and pastel.

Both of these works demonstrate the her technical and creative virtuosity. In Blue Chrysanthemum a cyanotype of a single Chrysanthemum stem has been transformed by the addition of pastel and pencil marks. They give a vibrancy and sense of movement that would have been missing from the original cyanotype. The viewer is left to question the meaning of the added marks, to me it gives a sense of the flower being affected, buffeted by its environment.

Branch of 3 Iris is a much calmer image. Again it is a cyanotype with water colour and pastel shading. This is a completely different image to a straight colour photograph of an Iris. The use of cyanotype and hand colouring takes away the representational nature of a photograph and endows the image with a less naturalistic but, to me, more spiritual feel.

Hahn has also produced a collection of 20×24 polaroid photographs, a series within which are Botanical Studies. These were produced 1978-80 & 1988. They are “color (Polacolor II) photographs of still-life flower arrangements in editions of 3 to editions of 40” (Yates 1995:186)

Botanical Layout: African Daisy, is a large polaroid (722 x 673 mm) from1979.

Botanical Layout: Calceolaria, is also a large polaroid (733 x 615 mm) from 1980.

In this series Hahn produces images that hark back to earlier botanical textbooks. She has placed specimens of plants, usually against a neutral background, and has added diagrams or text reminiscent of textbooks. Unlike such books though, the lighting is casting shadows on either side of the subject giving a more 3 dimensional feel to the image and adding a patterning to the background (in textbooks the images are usually shown shadowless to concentrate on the botanical features of the plant).

In African Daisy the figures on the background, the drawn frame and the wording Pl79 top right all lead the viewer to assume the work is a botanical science study, but then the flowers break out of the drawn frame – something that would not normally occur in a scientific publication. The drawings are labelled a,b,c  and d, again giving the impression of scientific relevance – but nowhere is there any key as to the meanings attributed to each drawing. As with Blue Chrysanthemum   the viewer is left to draw their own conclusion as to their significance.

Calceolaria   also has annotated drawings and the  number 173  bottom centre – again giving the suggestion of scientific study – this is enhanced by the dissected nature of the plant with larger and smaller parts of the leaves and flowers on display. Once again though there is no key to explain the numbered drawings. Indeed here it is not just the drawings that are numbered, some (but not all) of the plant specimens also have numbers.

The overall impression left is one of ambiguity, these seeming scientific photographs turn out not to be so – the drawings in Calceolaria   don’t seem to relate to the plant – leaving the viewer to try to decipher the meanings.



I tried to produce my own images in the style of Botanical Specimens, not having the drawing skills of Betty Hahn I wasn’t able to add the diagrams.

This was an interesting experiment to try out, but it was unsuccessful – the images just look like cut-up flowers without the layers of ambiguity that Hahn introduces. Even with better drawing skills I would probably only have produced imitations (and poor ones compared to the original) of Hahn’s work.

I was more successful with an experiment using pastels and watercolours on prints of my cyanotypes, influenced by Hahn’s work . I will continue these experiments in Part 4 of the course.

Poppy cyanotype and pastel

Poppy - cyanotype and pastel



The next experiment involved using pesticides on prints of floral images. This was something that came up during a discussion at one of the Creative Arts Hangout groups. I had tried several times to print photos and then spray them with pesticide intending to illustrate the dangers of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. This was ultimately much more successful and I have written in more detail on another blog posting. (Coe 2020).



Betty Hahn – Google Arts & Culture (s.d.) At: (Accessed 19/07/2020).

Joseph Bellows Gallery (s.d.) At: (Accessed 19/07/2020).

Museum of Contemporary Photography (s.d.) At: (Accessed 19/07/2020).

Yates, S. (ed.) (1995) Betty Hahn: Photography Or Maybe Not. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.