In most circles, a collection of algae specimens wouldn’t be cause for much excitement, but for botanist Anna Atkins, who was born on March 16, 1799, the aquatic plant life helped to solidify her place in history. Atkins, whose mother died shortly after giving birth to her in Kent, England, had an unusual upbringing for a woman of her time. In the footsteps of her zoologist father, John George Children, she studied science and developed a passion for botany and botanical illustration. Her early engravings of shells, for example, can be found accompanying work by her father. But it wasn’t until she studied under two pioneers of the then-budding field of photography, that her career took off.
In 1825, Anna married a merchant, John Pelly Atkins, who along with her father happened to be a friend of William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of several photography processes. Atkins would study directly under Talbot and was said to have had access to a camera as early as 1841. Because of this, some have declared her the first-ever female photographer, though Talbot’s wife Constance is thought to possibly hold the title (no surviving camera-based photos by Atkins or Constance Talbot have been found, so the issue is still unresolved).
In 1842, another friend of the Atkins family, noteworthy astronomer and photography experimenter Sir John Herschel, invented a photographic process called the “cyanotype,” that didn’t involve a camera at all. Atkins quickly learned the process, in which light-sensitive chemicals are used to produce a brilliant, cyan-colored print. She employed her collection of sea algae specimens to carefully and delicately produce detailed cyanotype prints and, within the next year, became the first person to privately publish a book illustrated with photographs. Only 13 copies of the handwritten book, titled “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions,” are known to exist.
Despite the undeniable beauty of cyanotype prints, scientists like Atkins weren’t so much interested in photography as an art form; instead, they gave rise to the medium as a more accurate means of documenting the world around them, replacing the watercolors and woodcuts used as illustrative mediums in the scientific community at the time. Cyanotypes were also the very first “blueprint” images used by architects who drew the name from their rich blue color.
Producing a photograph in Atkins’ time was far more time-consuming than the automated touch of a smartphone button to which many of us are accustomed today. To create her cyanotype prints, Atkins laid her specimens on paper and applied a solution of two chemicals, potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate, over top. She then exposed the paper to direct sunlight. The result is a deep cyan blue where the chemicals touched the paper, and a white silhouette of the algae specimen. The exactness of detail in Atkins’ photographic illustrations paved the way for female photographers and scientists alike, and represented a landmark step forward for the scientific community.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why botanical illustrations have long walked the line between scientific documentation and fine art. Atkins’ prints might easily be at home in a gallery or fine art museum. Even today, hundreds of her images can be found pinned to the popular image-sharing site Pinterest, as inspiration for home decor, clothing, textiles, and tattoos. Because of the rarity of the small edition that Atkins published, prints of her work are highly expensive today. In a 2004 auction, a volume of her work sold for £229,250. Thankfully, if you’d love to hang an Atkins print on your wall, you can order a much more affordable version through the New York Public Library’s digital collection.
Atkins would go on to produce a total of three volumes of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions between 1843 and 1853. Later, she collaborated with fellow female botanist and close friend Anne Dixon to produce three more albums of cyanotypes, focusing on ferns and flowering plants. She and her husband had no children together. Atkins died in 1871 at the age of 72. We can only imagine what she would think of how drastically the realms of science and photography have expanded since then.