Anna Atkins

Widely known as the first female photographer, Anna Atkins was born in Kent in 1799. She was a botanist, and like Fox Talbot, quickly saw the opportunities that photography gave to accurately document plants and nature.

Family friendships with both Fox Talbot and John Herschel meant she could learn directly from the process inventors. Atkins chose to use the new ‘cyanotype’ process invented by Herschel, impressed by the process’ ease of use, quality and stability.

Her aim was, like Fox Talbot, to record the natural forms she studied, however her composition was generally more intentional and artistic than her forerunners. While previous pioneers had invented techniques, Atkins investigated the way the cyanotype could be used to show her plants, and as such, each image is far more considered as to how it will look, both aesthetically and scientifically.

While her cyanotypes do not have any abstraction of objects, in many images the line of plants stems and leaves lead up or out of the image. The processes allowed for good contrasts, with dense backgrounds and clear sharp white areas. In some images, distance from the paper give a wider tonal range to appear, with lighter shades of blue for parts of the plant away from the surface.

Atkins moved on the process of photography, inviting more formal elements into her images with strong shape, form and an effective line.

‘Dictyota dichotoma’
Cyanotype
From ‘Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions’ 1843 – 1850

‘Dandelion’
Cyanotype
From ‘Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions’ 1843 – 1850

‘Carix (America)’
Cyanotype, c. 1850

‘Cystoseira granulata’
Cyanotype
From ‘Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions’ 1843 – 1850

Cyanotype process

– paper soaked with ammonium iron (III) citrate and potassium. The reaction between the iron and water creates blue colour.
– after composition, the paper is exposed to UV light (eg sunlight) for about 10 minutes
– development by washing in water gives a ‘Prussian blue’ tinted print