Woman of the Week: Botanist Anna Atkins

Woman of the Week: Botanist Anna Atkins

Who We Chose: English botanist Anna Atkins (1799-1871), whose book “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions,” published in 1843, was the first-ever printed book to be illustrated with photography.

Why We Selected Her: Perhaps most well-known for her striking prints of plants, Atkins merged art and science through her use of the cyanotype process, a nascent photographic method that utilized the sun to produce images onto cyan-blue paper (thus yielding “blueprints”).

Atkins’s decision to use the process in her first book — a bio-gallery of British algae sourced from her personal seaweed collection and borrowed from others — marked an historic moment in the use of photography as a means of illustration. Beyond their function as scientific documents, the prints are notable for their remarkable depth and detail, in addition to their masterful placement on the page. This combination of artistic skill and formal botanical knowledge led Atkins into a partnership with her friend (and fellow botanist) Anne Dixon to develop future projects that included flowering plants and other objects.

To date, only about two dozen copies of Atkins’s landmark book exist, and those that do remain vary in both completeness and structure. Despite this, Atkins’s contributions to the fields of science and photography continue to be felt. To celebrate, the New York Public Library has brought together two exhibitions to shine a light on her enduring legacy: “Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins” (consisting of Atkins original cyanotype impressions) and “Anna Atkins Refracted: Contemporary Works,” which pulls together the work of 19 artists who carry on Atkins’s pioneering spirit.

“Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state; and in fruit,” New York Public Library Digital Collections.
“Ulva latissima,” New York Public Library Digital Collections.
“Aspidium denticulatum, Jamaica,” Anna Atkins.
“Leucojam Varium,” Anna Atkins.
“Enteromorpha intestinalis,” New York Public Library Digital Collections.
“Bryopsis plumosa,” New York Public Library Digital Collections.
“Polysiphonia violacea,” New York Public Library Digital Collections.
“Cystoseira fibrosa,” New York Public Library Digital Collections.