Remembering Women in Photography: Anna Atkins

Remembering Women in Photography: Anna Atkins

To remember an art form, creation, or ideology, first we must remember its pioneers. The dreamers, the courageous, the innovative. Those who took it upon themselves to make history, even if they were unaware at the time of doing so.

Atkins’ father had relevant acquaintances to help educate his daughter. William Henry Fox Talbot, an inventor of photography, tutored her in this medium. The chemist, John Herschel, showed her the cyanotype process that he invented in 1842. This photographic process is what Atkins became mainly interested in.

The cyanotype process involves applying a mix of potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate to paper to make it light-sensitive. Objects to be recorded are then placed flat on top of the paper and exposed to UV light, such as sunlight. When washed with water, the paper turns a rich blue colour leaving behind a silhouette of the object printed.

She would master the cyanotype method and would go onto print images of ferns, feathers, flowers, and what she is arguably most famous for, algae. In the process of furthering her scientific and artistic career, she discovered and collected a grand total of 400 different specimens of algae from all over the British Isles and recorded them using the cyanotype technique.

In 1843, Atkins began her career by becoming the first person in history to publish a book of photography – British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions – which was entirely self-published. Over the next seven years, Atkins produced twelve additional parts and by 1853 she had finished the publication with 389 labelled prints and several pages of informative, scientific text.

Anna Atkins 1799 - 1871 'BRITISH ALGAE VOL. III', 1843-1853
Anna Atkins, ‘BRITISH ALGAE VOL. III’, 1843-1853. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s / ArtDigital Studio.

In 1854, potentially having collaborated with her friend Anne Dixon, the album named Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns was made. Although a numerous variety of plants are represented within the book, it is thought that Atkins and Dixon did not set out for this publication to be as wide-ranging or extensive in documenting British or foreign botany in the same way that Atkins’ other books did.

Carrying out the scientific research with such a method provides not only evidence of the findings but extends its existence. The cyanotypes provide a realistic illustration of the algae to be survived throughout history; affirming that photography can be used almost as evidence and stored in an archival, scientific, and yet artistic way. 

It would perhaps be naïve of us to think she would not have been tested as a woman, for being a pioneer of two such evolving sciences of the time: botany and photography. Her ability to strive from one complex profession to the next, shifting from scientific to artistic, was no doubt a challenge in itself. To have merged them in a way which helped establish photography to be a key method for scientific documentation, as well as having artistic means, is something to be respected for years to come. Moreover, remembering her may give women the confidence needed to pursue desires to work within the photography industry, even when it may seem difficult to make their way. 

Atkins’ hunger to learn and excel in photography, despite the lack of women representation at the time, is a poignant part of art history to be remembered today. It is not news to many that women have been infamously underrepresented in the arts throughout time and it is important to remember those who succeeded in challenging this. 

Fortunately, the artist is often remembered and the cyanotype technique that she popularised is still admired and used by many photographers and visual artists today.

On her 216th birthday, Google displayed an elaborate tribute to the artist by setting their search page background to the iconic cyanotype blue with white, leaf-like patterns. Her works are archived in several different locations including both the British Library and Museum in London, and in 2013 The New York Public Library made all her works accessible to be viewed by the public. This kind of celebration and showcasing of her works, centuries after her time, is so important to share with the widest audiences possible.

Atkins triumphed both the photography and botany worlds, during a period in history when women were typically seen not to succeed in a profession as men did. It is important that the talented artist’s identity, in particular her strong, ambitious, and motivational traits, continues to be recognised and remembered for years to come.

Words by Holly Houlton.

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Illustration by Gregory Segal.

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