Beautiful Impressions: Anna Atkins's British Algae

Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was the first woman photographer. An amateur marine botanist, she was also the first person to print and publish her own book illustrated entirely by photography. This work, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, made clear the enormous potential of William Henry Fox Talbot's 1839 invention of photography on paper as, in his words, "every man his own printer and publisher." Moreover, Atkins's work showed how the new medium could overcome, as she wrote, "the difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Conferva," by the use of "Sir John Herschel's beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves." Herschel, a good friend of Atkins and her scientist father, had invented the cyanotype process (today used only for blueprints) in 1842. Intending her work as a companion to William Harvey's unillustrated Manual of British Algae (1841), Atkins took care of every aspect of her masterpiece: she collected hundreds of specimens of seaweed, and identified, labeled, and photographed them. Then, working from her home in Sevenoaks, Kent, she arranged them into a series of volumes. The work appeared in parts, published on a regular schedule over ten years, and while the edition was probably not many more than the dozen or so copies known today, it stands as an important and generally overlooked milestone in the history of both photography and scientific illustration. The Library's copy of British Algae was inscribed and presented by Atkins to Sir John Herschel, Sevenoaks, October 1843.

Anna Atkins. Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Halstead Place, Sevenoaks, England: Anna Atkins, 1843-53.
The New York Public Library, Spencer Collection.

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