Anna Atkins and her Cyanotype Impressions

I’ve been meaning to write a little summary of Anna Atkins for awhile now, and the Ikea prints of her work have finally spurred me on. So without further ado I introduce you to one of the most important cyanotype artists of history – Anna Atkins.

Alaria esculenta. Digital ID: 419621. New York Public Library
Rhodomenia laciniata. Digital ID: 419658. New York Public Library

Anna Atkins was an English botanist who happened to be acquainted (through her father) with John Hershel when he invented cyanotype in 1842. She evidently quickly saw the potential in the process to accurately record botanical specimens and proceeded to create numerous cyanotype photograms of algae and seaweed. As one of the earliest (if not the first) female photographers, Atkins is famous for her cyanotypes and for being the first person to publish a book with photographic illustrations.She self-published her collection of cyanotypes in the book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in three volumes starting in 1843.

[Introduction.] Digital ID: 419691. New York Public LibraryInterestingly, she utilized cyanotype to print the entire book including handwritten labels and introduction instead of the usual typesetting.

The handwritten introduction begins:
“The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Confera, has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impression of the plants themselves.”

And what a beautiful process it is!

Although her cyanotypes are just simple shadowgrams, Atkins certainly had an artistic sense of composition, and the resulting images are beautiful and captivating. If you’d like to see more of her work, check out the large Anna Atkins collection at the NY Public Library Digital Gallery.

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