Inspiring women: Anna Atkins

One of the most beautiful search results page is the image one for "Anna Atkins". A wash of delicate botanicals silhouetted against various shades of blues seizes the eye of the beholder. And although images on computer screens are sometimes rendered anemic, there's something about this avalanche of variations on so beautiful a theme that makes a stronger impression.


Anna Atkins (16 March 1799 – 9 June 1871) was, some sources claim, the world's first female photographer and the first person ever to publish a photographically illustrated book.

Her mother died from the effects of childbirth and Anna grew up close to her father, A a respected scientist, he was secretary of the Royal Society and was associated with the British Museum. She received an unusual education for a woman of her time, and took up what she called "Sir John Herschel's beautiful process of cyanotype" as soon as it was invented in 1842.


Cyanotype is commonly called "sun-printing". The object being captured is laid 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. The process was otherwise used mainly to reproduce architectural and engineering drawings (i.e. blueprints).

Atkins self-published British Algae (1843) with a limited number of copies, and with handwritten text. Today, copies are held at the British Library, the MET, the New York Public Library and the Royal Society.


Though beautiful and artfully arranged, Atkins' focus with botanical cyanotypes was scientific rather than aesthetic. However, she went on to collaborate with her childhood friend, Anne Dixon, creating more whimsical photograms of ferns, flowers, feathers and lace.

Links:
The British Library
The New York Public Library
Book: Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms by Anna Atkins by Larry Schaaf and Hans Kraus Jr.

Images via Wikipedia
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