Anna Atkins: An introduction
Anna Atkins, an English botanist, is renowned for her remarkable compendium, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, which she privately published in approximately twelve instalments between 1843 and 1853. This is often considered the first publication to be illustrated with photographs. Instead of the traditional pen, ink, and watercolour botanical illustrations, which would then be translated into engravings, Atkins chose to employ the nascent cyanotype photographic process, invented by John Herschel in 1842. The result was a series of stark blue and white images of individual specimens of algae or seaweed, arranged in taxonomic order.
These images were made by placing each specimen directly on top of a regular piece of writing paper coated with iron salts of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. Atkins then sandwiched her sensitized sheet and plant specimen, along with a hand-written caption, between a piece of glass and a thin sheet of wood. The entire package was placed out in the sun for five to fifteen minutes, before being thoroughly washed with water. Atkins carefully composed each specimen on the page to display its most distinctive visual characteristics, with the resulting symmetry of her images enhancing their scientific ambitions.
In the 1850s, Atkins collaborated with her close friend Anne Dixon to produce at least three further presentation albums of photographs, including Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns (1853) and Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854). Her album devoted to British and Foreign Ferns included examples from Ceylon, Jamaica, the United States, Tyrol, Norway and Australia, making it a truly global project. These later albums exhibit a more creative arrangement of specimens, including individual plates featuring loose decorative displays of peacock, emu, parrot, duck, and partridge feathers, as well as pieces of lace.
The photography of Anna Atkins is celebrated for its beauty and innovation, and is found in many of the world’s major museums, including the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.
Images courtesy of Hans P. Kraus Jr, New York; New York Public Library, New York; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.