In the late 1830s, English Botanist Anna Atkins likely was not too interested in the specifics of photography. Atkins was formally trained as a botanist and, at the time, was studying algae. Through her practice, she was looking for a way to document the delicate elements of each specimen. She learned of the process of cyanotype printing (today used for blueprints) from its inventor, Sir John Herschel, a family friend. She further explored information about photography via correspondence with its actual inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot.


Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Working in the early 1840s, she documented her work using a photogenic drawing, gently placing each delicate specimen onto a sheet of paper that had been made light sensitive by a chemical mixture, and a piece of glass to hold it all together. Once all components were secured, they were placed in the sun; after enough exposure to light, the paper was washed in water, and the image would appear. The resulting print was known as a cyanotype because of the blue color produced by the chemicals on the paper. The twenty-something-year-old woman was actually developing a process that would be pioneering in scientific imagery.

Over the years, Atkins collected hundreds of specimens and photographed them. They were arranged into volumes and published over the course of ten years. The volumes contain more than 400 types of algae and Atkins made multiple photographs of each specimen. She reproduced copies of her book over the years, though it is estimated that only a dozen or so remain. Her work is seen as an important contribution to the development of photography, as it was shown that cyanotype could reveal the intricate details of algae, but also botanical specimens like ferns, and even feathers and lace.


Sketch of our Victoria stencil featured in the Collection.

Anna Atkins is believed to be the first person to publish a book using photographic images but is also believed to be the first woman ever to take a photograph. On March 16, 2015, Google commemorated Atkins on her 216th birthday by displaying a Google Doodle of bluish leaf shapes, meant to represent her cyanotype work. Atkins’ work, as we briefly mentioned here, served as inspiration for part of our newest Collection.

View the New York Public Library’s Digital Collection of Anna’s book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

P.S.: Visit back on our Journal to learn more about Rinne Allen, who produces her own light drawings.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to read 4 comments
  1. tracy

    so interesting! I just tried cyanotyping for the first time a couple of weeks ago and was going to try it out on some AC fabric. will definitely check out her book. thanks!