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How the First Female Photographer Changed the Way the World Sees Algae

The groundbreaking photo book by Anna Atkins, a 19th-century British botanist, is going on display in the Netherlands

A cyanotype photogram from "Photographs of British Algae." (Anna Atkins/Wikimedia Commons )
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Anna Atkins, a British botanist working in the 19th century, transformed algae into art. Using early photographic techniques, Atkins portrayed the aquatic organisms as ethereal tufts and tendrils floating over vibrant blue backgrounds. She is widely recognized as the world’s first female photographer, and her pioneering book on algae will soon go on display at a museum in the Netherlands, Mindy Weisberger reports for Live Science.

The Rijksmuseum recently acquired Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, which Atkins self-published in 1844. The book is a comprehensive, photographic catalog of hundreds of algae species native to Great Britain. Only about 20 copies of the book—some complete, some not—exist today.

“The book acquired by the Rijksmuseum is a rare example because of the large number of photographs (307), the excellent condition of the photographs, and the 19th-century binding,” the museum said in a statement.

Photographs of British Algae will go on display at the Rijksmuseum on June 17th, as part of a larger exhibit titled “New Realities: Photography in the 19th Century.” The exhibit highlights the “rapid development of photography after its invention in 1834,” according to the press statement.

Atkins was a leading figure of this new movement. Photographs of British Algae is regarded among many scholars as the first photographically illustrated book, according to the Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography.

Atkins worked with cyanotypes, an early form of photographic printing that relied on chemicals and sunlight. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica explains, cyanotypes are created by resting the photo subject “on paper impregnated with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. When exposed to sunlight and then washed in plain water the uncovered areas of the paper turn a rich deep blue.” This process, known as “blueprinting,” would later be used to replicate architectural and other technical drawings.

Born in England in 1799, Atkins received a caliber of scientific education that was unusual for women of that time. Her father, John George Children, was a scientist affiliated with both the Royal Society and the British Museum. Atkins capitalized on his connections, learning about cyanotypes from Sir John Herschel, the inventor of the technique and a friend of the Atkins family, according to the Getty Museum.

Atkins dabbled in scientific drawings in her early 20s, illustrating her father’s translation of Genera of Shells by Jean Baptiste Lamarck. But after learning about cyanotypes, she realized that photography could better capture the intricate details of the fauna that fascinated her.

"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 impressions of the plants themselves," Atkins wrote in the 1843 introduction to her book, according to Weisberger of Live Science.

Atkins produced thousands of algae cyanotypes over the course of ten years, releasing multiple editions of Photographs of British Algae. It was a revolutionary project—and not only because it relied on new technology. With her beautiful, informative book, Atkins demonstrated that photography was a valuable means of scientific instruction. 

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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