Anna Atkins

Botanist Anna Atkins

In October 1843, the great botanist and photographer Anna Atkins (1799–1871) wrote a letter to a friend. “I have lately taken in hand a rather lengthy performance,” revealed Atkins. “It is the taking photographical impressions of all, that I can procure, of the British algae and confervae, many of which are so minute that accurate drawings of them are very difficult to make.” Atkins proceeded to inquire whether a mutual acquaintance, also interested in aquatic plants, would care to receive a copy of her recently completed book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

Atkins learned of photography through its British inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot. Only months after Talbot patented his most successful photographic process, in 1841, Atkins and her father, a respected scientist, decided to replicate the “talbotype” at their home. “My daughter and I,” Atkins’s father wrote to Talbot, “shall set to work in good earnest ’till we completely succeed in practicing your invaluable process.” Ultimately, it was a different photographic process—the cyanotype—that captivated Atkins. Developed by her friend and neighbor Sir John Herschel, the cyanotype process produced blue-and-white prints that Atkins prized for their sharp contours and striking colors. Atkins added hundreds of new plates to Photographs of British Algae throughout the 1840s and early 1850s, all the while refining cyanotype chemical solutions and exposure times.

After completing Photographs of British Algae in 1853, Atkins turned from aquatic to terrestrial plants. The same year, she began to produce cyanotypes of ferns, including Polypodium Phegopteris (1853), Aspidium Lobatium (1853), and Pteris Rotundifolia (Jamaica) (1853). As in the algae cyanotypes, each fern is arrayed on a simple ground, its stems and leaves—and, in some cases, roots—captured with clarity and precision. Perhaps inspired by her first book, Atkins gathered many of these prints in Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Plants and Ferns (1853), widely considered her most accomplished publication.

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