The Artful Science of Anna Atkins

For many visitors, the highlight of a new photography exhibit at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a book of algae pictures. It sounds a little mundane, but it’s actually “The First Photographically Illustrated and Printed Book”—and it was taken by the first female photographer.

Anna Atkins worked with a team of assistants from 1843 to 1853 to produce a beautiful monograph, Photographs of British Algae, using the cyanotype method invented by John Herschel in 1842. (You might know it as the technology that creates blueprints.) Atkins arranged pieces of seaweed on 10″-by-8″ paper that had been soaked in chemicals, then exposed them to light in order to create dark-blue images with white leaf-shaped reliefs.

The scant records we have indicate that Atkins discovered photography after her father chaired a Royal Society meeting in 1839, where William Henry Fox Talbot introduced his invention. She corresponded with Talbot, Herschel, and other early photographers throughout her life, sometimes via her father.

Atkins reportedly created British Algae in response to another monograph on algae she thought was shoddily done. The copies were produced by hand: multiple photographs each of over 400 botanical subjects, hand-labelled with their Latin names. According to Larry Schaaf, Atkins mailed a set of plates to subscribers every few months, who would then reorganize and re-bind the collection according to Atkins’s complicated written instructions.

Atkins’s exhaustive and innovative work was little esteemed by her contemporaries.

The first “set” contained the title page, an introduction (in Atkins’s handwriting, photographically duplicated), and eight prints. By late 1850 Atkins had sent out thirteen more sets, with a revised list of plates that would make up Volume I. Things already sent but not bound in Volume I as per her instructions would be used in Volume II, the instructions for which came out in late 1851. Volume III was…

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