Anna Atkins is best known for her haunting photographs of a unlikely subject: British algae. With her work she changed botany and photography, and managed to make a piece of art that still moves viewers today.
Today is Anna Atkins' 216th birthday (and the reason she's celebrated with a Google Doodle). It's a good time to remember how she brought together two unique passions to create a lasting record.
Atkins was an insider stuck on science's edge. She saw a new photographic technique as a tool.
Born in 1799, Atkins had a remarkably scientific childhood as the daughter of John Children (he was the type of eminence who had a butterfly named after him). Anna quickly found herself a part of her father's scientific circle, as well as an active contributor to his work — she illustrated his translation of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's Genera of Shells. She developed a passion for the sciences even though, at the time, she was relegated to amateur status due to restrictions on women in the scientific fields.
As recalled in The Philosophical Breakfast Club, Atkins' scientific background led to her correspondence with William Henry Fox Talbot, a photographic pioneer (which, in the 1840s, was almost anybody who knew what a photograph was). She also struck up an equally important friendship with Sir John Herschel, who invented something called the cyanotype in 1842.
Early photographers struggled with a problem: they couldn't easily develop their pictures because the existing techniques were slow, expensive, and required dangerous chemicals. Herschel came up with a solution: using an iron pigment called "Prussian blue," he laid objects or photographic negatives onto chemically treated paper, exposed them to sunlight for around 15 minutes, and then washed the paper. The remaining image revealed pale blue objects on a dark blue background. This was a cyanotype — a new way to print photographs permanently.
Herschel primarily used cyanotypes to copy notes, but when Atkins heard about the technique, she leapt at it. Though she'd shown herself to be a capable artist, she realized instantly that cyanotypes were a better way to capture the intricacies of plant life and avoid the tedium — and error — involved with drawing. As important, her passion for botany allowed her to see a new application of the exciting technology.
So in 1843, she began making a photographic book of algae.
Anna Atkins made history — and cyanotypes that are still around today
Atkins' British Algae was the definition of a labor of love. Published piecemeal over a decade, from the 1840s to the 1850s, the book was made at home using her own materials. From what we know, Atkins collected the algae with the help of her friend Anne Dixon and dried and pressed it, the same way you might press flowers. Then she identified it using William Harvey's Manual of British Algae. Finally, she made the cyanotype by laying each piece upon the paper. (That's why, technically, her pictures are called photograms, not photographs, because they didn't use a camera.) The book's text appears in her elegant cursive.
She eagerly introduced the volume by crediting its technology:
The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Conferae, has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves.
Atkins may have been helped by her father and access to his lab (she dedicated the book to him). But even though she had access to equipment others might not have had, her innovation was to pair two passions and create a record that endures today.
The book wasn't a profit-making enterprise for Atkins, but it was an important one. It stands as the first book illustrated with photographs, and it brought together photography and botany for the first time. Atkins took the most fleeting and unusual of subjects — British algae — and made it timeless.