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