The Forgotten Story of Anna Atkins

How a small-town woman botanist became a photography pioneer

By Google Arts & Culture

Dictyota dichotoma by Anna Atkins (1853) by The Natural History Museum and Anna AtkinsThe Natural History Museum

In 1851 the medium of photography was barely 10 years old. It was new and high-tech. These strange black boxes and obscure chemical processes promised to hold a moment still forever, capture the world in a way that you can hold in your hand; it must have seemed like magic.

Anna Atkins learned about the development of the new medium of photography from Willam Henry Fox Talbot, and learned to use the cyanotype process directly from its inventor Sir John Herschel (the man whose nephew, William Hersechel, discovered Uranus). Using Herschel’s cyanotypes and Talbot's method of photogenic drawing, Atkins produced the first ever entirely photographically illustrated book.

And what was the subject of this landmark, pioneering work? Algae. The budding botanist used these new photography techniques to capture a topic close to her plant-loving naturalist heart, publishing her work British Algae in sections between 1843 and 1853. Atkins' photograms and book ushered in a whole new method of scientific illustration and documentation. Impressive stuff for a twenty-something woman in an age where women were, on the whole, restricted from scientific disciplines.

Ferns. Specimen of Cyanotype (1840s) by Anna AtkinsNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Atkins created each image, or 'photogenic drawing', by carefully placing the delicate botanical specimen onto a sheet of paper that had been made light-sensitive by a coating of chemicals.

The resulting print is called a 'cyanotype' because of the blue color produced by the chemicals (incidentally, this is the same process that produces the famous architectural 'blue print').

Pteris rotundifolia (1853) by Anna Atkins and Anne DixonThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Securing the specimens to the paper with a sheet of glass, the glass and paper were then placed in the sun. After sufficient exposure to light, the paper was washed in water, which caused the image to appear in its final form. Because the specimens were solid objects that light could not pass through, they appear as negative images.

Her images show the ghostly outlines of these botanical samples; they're both beautiful and strangely haunting.

Adiantum capillus veneris, British (1853) by Anna Atkins and Anne DixonThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Atkins is not only considered to be the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images, but she is also widely regarded as the first woman to ever take a photograph.

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