Bluffer’s Notes

This botanist’s cyan­otypes be­lat­edly made her recog­nised as a pioneer in photography

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All about Anna Atkins, the first woman to make pho­to­graphic im­ages

Anna Atkins’ beau­ti­ful Prus­sian blue cyan­otypes, made with botan­i­cal sub­jects, were cre­ated

in the early 1840s. She was the first woman to make pho­to­graphic im­ages, yet it took over a cen­tury for her to be recog­nised for her con­tri­bu­tion to the medium’s his­tory.

What was her back­ground?

Atkins was born in Ton­bridge, Kent, in 1799. Her fa­ther was the chemist and zo­ol­o­gist John Ge­orge Chil­dren, who was the sec­re­tary of the Royal So­ci­ety and a per­sonal friend of Wil­liam Henry Fox Tal­bot. She be­came in­ter­ested in botany as a child, which her fa­ther en­cour­aged, and later made en­grav­ings to il­lus­trate one of his books on shells. She mar­ried John Pelly Atkins, a busi­ness­man who shared her pas­sion for science, and be­came a mem­ber of the pres­ti­gious London Botan­i­cal So­ci­ety in 1839.

What tech­niques did she use?

Atkins learned Tal­bot’s tech­nique for mak­ing pho­tograms (which he called ‘pho­to­genic draw­ings’) soon af­ter it was an­nounced in 1839. In this process, im­ages are cre­ated by treat­ing a piece of draw­ing pa­per with light-sen­si­tive chem­i­cals, plac­ing an ob­ject on the pa­per and ex­pos­ing it to sun­light. Af­ter fix­ing, the ob­ject’s shape be­comes per­ma­nent on the pa­per.

Atkins used the re­lated cyan­otype process. It was made with the same tech­nique but us­ing chem­i­cals – fer­ric am­mo­nium cit­rate and potas­sium fer­ri­cyanide – that dyed the pa­per a rich blue. It was in­vented by one of Atkins’ friends, Sir John Her­schel, one of the ma­jor sci­en­tific fig­ures of his age, in 1842.

What were her sub­jects?

Atkins made a se­ries of pho­tograms of sea­weed to il­lus­trate her pri­vately pub­lished botan­i­cal study ti­tled Pho­to­graphs of Bri­tish Al­gae: Cyan­otype

Im­pres­sions, Part 1 (1843). It was the first pho­to­graph­i­cally il­lus­trated book ever made (it in­cluded over 300 cyan­otypes) and the text was hand-writ­ten. The first com­mer­cially pub­lished book il­lus­trated with pho­to­graphs was Tal­bot’s The Pen­cil

of Na­ture (1844-46).

Did she make pho­to­graphs us­ing a cam­era?

Atkins is known to have used Tal­bot’s own hand-made cam­era in 1841, which would make her the first woman pho­tog­ra­pher. Sadly none of her cam­era­made pho­to­graphs has sur­vived into the present day.

What did she do in later life?

She con­tin­ued pub­lish­ing parts of her Pho­to­graphs of Bri­tish Al­gae book un­til 1853. She also com­piled al­bums of her cyan­otypes of flow­er­ing plants and ferns, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with her friend Anne Dixon. In 1865 she do­nated the var­i­ous botan­i­cal sub­ject used in her work to the Bri­tish Mu­seum. She died in 1871, aged 72.

Is Atkins’ work cur­rently on show?

A se­lec­tion of her im­ages are dis­played in New Re­al­i­ties: Photography in

the Nineteenth Cen­tury, a ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive of 300 pho­tos from the pe­riod. It’s at the Ri­jksmu­seum in Am­s­ter­dam, The Nether­lands, un­til 17th Septem­ber; and a book of the same name is also avail­able.

Above Anna Atkins used the then-new cyan­otype pho­to­graphic process to cap­ture her botan­i­cal spec­i­mens for pos­ter­ity. Her work joins that of other im­age-mak­ing pioneers in an ex­hi­bi­tion and book.

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