In October 1843, the botanist and photographer Anna Atkins (1799–1871) wrote a letter to a friend. “I have lately taken in hand a rather lengthy performance,” revealed Atkins. “It is the taking photographical impressions of all, that I can procure, of the British algae and confervae, many of which are so minute that accurate drawings of them are very difficult to make.” Atkins proceeded to inquire whether a mutual acquaintance, also interested in aquatic plants, would care to receive a copy of her recently completed book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.
With this book—the first to be illustrated entirely with photographs—Atkins combined her passions for scientific inquiry, technological experimentation, and artistic expression. Initially, Atkins conceived it as a companion volume to Manual of British Algae (1841), a lengthy, un-illustrated guide to aquatic plant life. Motivated by her belief that the visual appearance of plants possessed both botanical importance and aesthetic interest, Atkins resolved to collect, classify, and picture the specimens in the guide. Yet the last stage of her project—picturing—soon began to absorb her. While previous scientists had supplemented their research with drawings or prints, Atkins sought, as she later explained, “to obtain impressions of plants themselves.” In pursuit of an accurate yet evocative mode of representation, she adopted a technology that had emerged just several years prior: photography.
Atkins learned of photography through its British inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot. Only months after Talbot patented his most successful photographic process, in 1841, Atkins and her father, a respected scientist, decided to replicate the “talbotype” at their home. “My daughter and I,” Atkins’s father wrote to Talbot, “shall set to work in good earnest ’till we completely succeed in practicing your invaluable process.” Ultimately, it was a different photographic process—the cyanotype—that captivated Atkins. Developed by her friend and neighbor Sir John Herschel, the cyanotype process produced blue-and-white prints that Atkins prized for their sharp contours and striking colors. Atkins added hundreds of new plates to Photographs of British Algae throughout the 1840s and early 1850s, all the while refining cyanotype chemical solutions and exposure times.
After completing Photographs of British Algae in 1853, Atkins turned from aquatic to terrestrial plants. The same year, she began to produce cyanotypes of ferns, including Polypodium Phegopteris (1853), Aspidium Lobatium (1853), and Pteris Rotundifolia (Jamaica) (1853). As in the algae cyanotypes, each fern is arrayed on a simple ground, its stems and leaves—and, in some cases, roots—captured with clarity and precision. Perhaps inspired by her first book, Atkins gathered many of these prints in Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Plants and Ferns (1853), widely considered her most accomplished publication.
During this time, Atkins also began to photograph entirely different subjects. Likely collaborating with her childhood friend Anne Dixon, Atkins incorporated flowers, feathers, and lace into prints that feature newly intricate compositions, subtle layering, and varied textures. Freed from the imperatives of scientific accuracy, she focused increasingly on visual properties such as line and form, color and space, and transparency and opacity. Even so, Atkins and her groundbreaking photographs were nearly forgotten by the late 19th century. In 1889, a collector writing on the origins of Photographs of British Algae proposed that the initials “A. A.”—Anna Atkins’s modest signature—stood for “Anonymous Amateur.” But in recent years, scholars and artists have reexamined Atkins’s contributions to science, technology, publishing, and art, proof that what the botanist and photographer described as her “lengthy performance” is having an even lengthier afterlife.
Annemarie Iker, Mellon-Marron Research Consortium Fellow, 2020
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.