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Entries in Anna Atkins (2)


Atkins at the Royal Society in London

We talked about Anna Atkins just last week in the History of Photography. This Tuesday, which is Photo History day in my world, the online show, Objectivity, visited the Royal Society in London, to look at their copy of Anna Atkins book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, created in 1843.

Anna Atkins is considered the first woman photographer, and the first person to publish a book of photographs, although they are actually photograms. Atkins was an English botanist, and knew there was a real need for scientific illustrations of plants. Her books are also considered the first use of photography for scientific illustration.

For my students, William Henry Fox Talbot's book, The Pencil of Nature, is the first commercially published book of photographs. Atkins' books were handmade for her friends and fellow scientists, and truly a labor of love.

Enjoy the video, it is a rare treat to watch Rupert Baker casually flip through the pages. For more info, read this article at Peta Pixel.



Anna Atkins: Botanist and Photographer

While in NYC last month I had the privilege of getting to see one of Anna Atkins actual books. Her work is what inspired my project "Sun Prints," and I fell in love with photograms on the first day of wet lab in college. Needless to say, this was a real treat. The semester starts tomorrow and the first class that I will meet with is Expressive Photo (Alternative Processes) which I only get to teach once a year. The course will cover photograms and cyanotypes, and I will do a presentation on her work.

Atkins is an interesting person in the history of photography. Her father was a scientist and she was exposed to many scientists and the elite of England during her childhood. She knew Sir John Herschel (early inventor with many significant contributions to the history of photo) and became fascinated by his process called cyanotype which is a non-silver photographic method of making images using Potassium Ferricyanide and Ferric Ammonium Citrate: the process was invented in 1842 and she began using it before the year's end. The image is blue and is one of the most archival methods of making a photograph ever invented, but the blue color kept it from ever being viable.

For centuries, botanists struggled with representation in their scientific publications because the plants had to be hand-drawn and were only as accurate as the abilities of the artist. As a young woman, Atkins would make drawings to illustrate her father's publications and this led to her eventual use of the actual plants as negatives. She would go to the river (or fields) with her servants and gather plants to take back to her home. Then she would press them flat, and make contact prints with cyanotype. The resulting images were exact reproductions of the plants. The photograms evolved into an ambitious project making limited edition books for botanists. When the plant negative fell apart she would gather a new specimen. She privately published her first book of these images in 1843 entitled, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. She would go on to produce three volumes of this book between 1843 and 1853 of which there are only 17 copies remaining in the world (hence my excitement at actually seeing one of them.) Her work is considered to be the first use of photography for scientific purposes, the first book utilizing photographs as illustrations, and she is perhaps the first woman photographer. She is also known for her typography in the books which was oftentimes made from plants.

More images by Atkins at BibliOdyssey.

Photo Credit: Rene' West, Anna Atkin's book, shot at the Metropolitan Museum, 2009