The plants are white as ghosts, and they float in the fields as blue as the waters off Dover. Each is a little miracle, their neuron-like roots twisting around the page, their leaves revealing each branching vein. These are photographs, made only with sunlight and an amateur chemistry set. There was no precedent for them in the early 1840s when a woman invented the photo book.
She was there british photographer Anna Atkins, who may not be as well known as Louis Daguerre, William Henry Fox Talbot, and other men in the medium’s first decade. But she intensely beautiful plans of marine plants, which she began to make in 1843, are as important to the development of photography as they are to the history of science.
Her magnum opus, “Photographs of British Algae”, the first sections of which she published 175 years ago this fall, was the first volume to be illustrated with photographs, albeit taken without a camera. Dozens of pages from this book are featured in “Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins”, on the interplay of science and art. at the main branch of the New York Public Library.
Atkins was born in 1799, in the south-east of England; his father, John George Children, was an amateur chemist who later worked for the British Museum. He also translated several important scientific treatises into English, such as a Taxonomy of Seashells from 1823 which the young Anna painstakingly illustrated for him. He encouraged his daughter’s interest in the natural world; the New York Public Library’s exhibit includes an early herbarium in which she pressed dried thistles and sprigs of mint, and an album of tender watercolor landscapes, begun in 1835 and continued for decades after, which ‘Anna painted as a gift to her husband, Kent landowner John Pelly Atkins.
In 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot announced that he had discovered a new means of “photogenic drawing”, which could trace details of plants, fabrics or the like on photosensitive paper. (Photography has the rare distinction of being invented twice: Daguerre and Talbot discovered two different techniques, independently of each other, in the same year.) Talbot presented his technique to the Royal Society, including John George Children was the secretary, and Anna Atkins will soon correspond with Talbot through her father. Like Talbot, she saw that the new technology of photography would allow greater scientific precision in botanical illustration – which until then had relied either on letterpress printing, which was only as good as its illustrators, or of course on dried specimens which have become brittle before long.
She started collecting seaweed from the south-east coast of England and the ponds around Kent, and she begged her friends to lend their own specimens. Then, from 1843, she began producing “photographic prints” of these algae, “many of which,” as she writes in a letter displayed in the exhibit, “are so tiny that it is very difficult to make precise drawings “.
His chosen technique was the cyanotype – or the blueprint, as it was later called when architects adopted it. You first brush a sheet of paper with an iron salt solution, then let it dry. Then you place an object on the paper and compress it under glass. Leave it in the sun for about 15 minutes, then wash the exposed leaf in water, and uncover it portion of the paper takes on a rich Prussian blue.
The rest of the leaf, obscured by algae or compressed leaves, shows a white negative impression, like an x-ray or a snow angel. The Dictyota dichotoma species grows into a bundle of thick, tangled rhizomes, while Furcellaria fastigiata consists of thinner, thinner strands that resemble nerve endings. A specimen of algae has the density of a chanterelle; another looks more like a tangle of fallen feathers.
Yet these are clearly more than the recordings of an amateur scientist. Atkins laid the plants on the page with a keen eye for composition, often with an attempt at symmetry. Pairs of specimens are arranged as almost identical siblings; thicker algae give more indistinct abstract tangles. Algae bristle and ripple in Atkins cyanotypes, whose rich blues, of course, are reminiscent of the ocean. Even the legends show a playful inventiveness. For the title page of a chapter in her book, she fashioned the letters “British Algae” from wispy strands of seaweed, forming her name from its subject.
As cyanotypes are not made from a negative, each Atkins still was one of a kind, making âBritish Algaeâ a daunting endeavor that took a decade of work. (The servants probably would have helped her, although we know next to nothing about her work process.) The resulting books were also different. Atkins sent the pages to subscribers as she completed them; readers then sewn the papers together as desired.
His efforts to circulate his work, both to eminent botanists and to pioneers of photography like Talbot (then finishing his first book, “The Pencil of Nature”), make Atkins a rather different figure from other unknown women now the attention of New York museums – like Orra White Hitchcock, whose scientific illustrations for her husband’s college lectures were shown at the American Folk Art Museum this summer, or Hilma af Klint, the Swedish theosophist whose paintings revolutionary abstracts, now on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, were not exhibited during his lifetime. Atkins, though reserved, was no stranger, and her plans are as important to who saw them as they were to what they portrayed. The New York Public Library’s collection of Atkins photograms belonged to John Herschel, the inventor of the cyanotype process.
The library supplemented its Atkins display case with an upstairs pendant exhibit, âAnna Atkins Refracted,â featuring 19 contemporary photographers. Most of them use photography techniques without a camera; many are also involved in botany or the place of women in science. German photographer Ulf Saupe created a rich cyanotype that looks like one of Atkins’ rippling seaweed, but is actually the impression of a plastic bag floating in the ocean. Weird and wonderful Letha Wilson photograms start from impressions of found flowers and industrial objects; she then folds the exposed sheets, photographs them (with a camera) and reprints the strange and Bauhaus result.
It’s worth returning to the Atkins exhibit once you’ve seen this contemporary showcase, to revisit its plans with an eye on their aesthetic boldness. âBritish Algaeâ has its place in the history of photography and book publishing, but these resonant cyanotypes are also artefacts from an era when science and art were better known. The plants look like river deltas, plumes of smoke, controlled detonations, lightning bolts breaking through the darkness. The question of whether photography was art would rock audiences for over a century, but Atkins already had the answer.
Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins (until February 17)
Anna Atkins refracted: contemporary works (until January 6)
At the New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, 476 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 917-275-6975, nypl.org.