Photography pioneer: Anna Atkins’ algae cyanotypes

blue and white cyanotype image showing white plants on a blue background

British botanist and photographer, Anna Atkins was a pioneer in photography: she produced the first ever photographically illustrated book and is widely recognised to the first ever female photographer.

Born in 1799, Atkins was the daughter of John George Children, a scientist and fellow of the Royal Society. He was very supportive of her scientific interests at a time when women were not welcomed into that sphere.

She was a keen botanist and scientific illustrator, and, when photography began to emerge as a new technique, she was one of the first to put it to good use.

Sir John Herschel, who invented the cyanotype in 1842, was a family friend and a regular visitor to the Atkins family home in Kent, England. 

To make a cyanotype, objects are placed on a sheet of chemically treated paper and then exposed to sunlight. Once exposed, the paper is washed in water and dried, with the colour fully developing when dry.

EXPLORE MORE: Cyanotypes

Atkins was a keen artist, in drawing, watercolour and lithography, as well as an enthusiastic botanist. She recognised that Herschel’s new invention, which required only a few chemicals, water and sunlight, offered an opportunity to approach botanical illustration in different way.

In 1843, Atkins started work producing the cyanotypes that would make up Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. 

The study of algae was fairly new in Britain at that time and her intention was that her work would provide illustrations for William Harvey’s Manual of British Algae which had been published in 1841. 

Eventually she completed three volumes, which are now recognised as the first books ever to be published with photographic illustrations.

EXPLORE MORE: Cyanotypes of algae by Anna Atkins

Atkins produced the work over the ten years upto 1853. She distributed it in parts to a number of recipients who then bound the work themselves, meaning each copy differs.

Only eighteen copies exist – in varying states of completeness – held at various institutions including the Horniman Museum and Gardens, The British Library, The Rijksmuseum, The Royal Society and Kew Gardens.

EXPLORE MORE: Horniman Museum and Gardens’ collections on Europeana

By Horniman Museum and Gardens

March is Women’s History Month. Explore more articles and features about women’s history.

Feature image: Rhodomela lycopodoides, Anna Atkins, Rijksmuseum, Public Domain

2 thoughts on “Photography pioneer: Anna Atkins’ algae cyanotypes

  1. Anna Atkins learned directly from Talbot about two of his inventions related to photography: the “photogenic drawing” technique (in which an object is placed on light-sensitized paper which is exposed to the sun to produce an image) and calotypes .

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