Anna Atkins (1799–1871) was an English botanist and photographer known for her pioneering work with cyanotype photography. She used the innovative technique to document algae and fern specimens, becoming widely recognised as the first female photographer and the first person to publish a book featuring photographic images.
As a child, Atkins was exposed to the world of science through her father, John George Children, a respected scientist with connections to the Royal Academy and British Museum. These connections granted her access to a scientific community that was typically restricted for women at the time. Under her father’s tutelage, Atkins ventured into scientific illustration, creating hand-drawn images to accompany her father’s translation of Jean-Baptiste de Monet Lamarck’s Genera of Shells (1823), although her interests later focused on botany.
In 1825, Atkins married John Pelly Atkins, a wealthy West India merchant who shared her passion for science. This marriage provided her with the time and resources to pursue her botanical interests. Through her father’s connections in the Royal Society, Atkins had the opportunity to learn about developments in photography from renowned figures such as William Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John Herschel. Talbot and Herschel played pivotal roles in the invention of early photographic methods during the first half of the nineteenth century.
The Development of the Cyanotype Process
Herschel developed the cyanotype process in 1842 as an advanced experiment based on Talbot's earlier photographic technique. This process involved exposing chemically treated paper to sunlight with an object placed on top of it, and then submerging it in water. The resulting reaction produced vibrant Prussian blue impressions, with the object appearing in a brilliant white negative against the rich blue background. The impressions were coined as 'blueprints', with the technique being mainly used in reproducing architectural and engineering drawings. Unlike many other early photographers, Atkins had the opportunity to learn this method directly from Herschel, allowing her to master the process. Her mastery of the cyanotype technique, along with her botanical expertise, led to her groundbreaking contributions in science, photography, and publishing.
The First of Anna Atkins’ Cyanotypes
An enthusiastic collector of algae specimens, Atkins embraced Herschel’s groundbreaking technique to meticulously document her collection with intricate detail. Over the course of a decade-long project, she produced numerous volumes of cyanotype prints, capturing the botanical specimens she encountered in the British Isles. The first instalment, British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, made its debut in 1843, marking the world's first publication to feature photographic images. These stunning visual records showcased a wide array of algae species never before witnessed. This monumental undertaking comprised nearly 400 cyanotype impressions, published across multiple volumes.
After the passing of her father in 1853, Atkins embarked on a new venture, Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns, collaborating with her close friend, Anne Dixon. Fueled by their shared passion for botany, this project resulted in a smaller-scale collection produced as a gift for Dixon's nephew, Henry Dixon, who also shared their love for scientific exploration. The duo created 100 plates of cyanotype impressions, resulting in only two copies of the work itself, one gifted to Dixon and the other to her nephew.
Anna Atkins’ Legacy
Atkins' tireless efforts continued until her passing on June 9th 1871, at Halstead Place, Kent. Her pioneering technique and groundbreaking publications established her as a significant figure in the fields of botany and photography, reinforcing the recognition of photography as a scientific tool. Despite the delayed reception of her groundbreaking work, she's remembered as a visionary who pushed the societal boundaries of Victorian England. Defying conventions and paving the way for future generations of women, Atkins left an indelible mark in both the scientific and artistic spheres.