Anna Atkins: the art of cyanotype – #100GameChangers

Anna Atkins was from Kent, England, and had lost her mother at birth to the consequences of childbirth. She lived close to her father and acquired a love of science from him. She became a botanist and was one of the first women photographers. In 1841, she came into contact with Fox Talbot accidentally. One of her father’s friends who was passionate about photography. Talbot invented the technique of photogenic drawing and the cyanotype process. This meeting was striking and opened up a new way for Anna. She could immediately see the potential use of photography for the recording of various specimens found in nature. Her father was a famous senior scientist at the renovated ‘British Museum’ and many of Anna’s scientific drawings are featured in it.

She lived at a time when women were not encouraged to study science. Botany was in any case a more accepted area. The choice of cyanotype for her work was good because it was not very expensive and because it was easy to use. This process was much more durable than others and for this reason many of her works still survive today. She was particularly attracted to seaweed, which was her favourite subject. In the 1850s she collaborated with the photographer Anna Dixon who was her close friend, producing three albums of cyanotypes. She died in 1871 at the age of 72. Her work went beyond the botanical enterprise. She made a harmonious and poetic composition arranging the algae. She played with the contrast between the white of her plants and the blue of the background. This show us her true aesthetic approach.

Cyanotype is a photographic printing characterized by the typical cyan-blue colour. It required a negative of the same size as the final image and in which the sensing agent was a trivalent iron salt. During exposure to light, ferricyanide was formed and trapped in the fibres of the paper to form the image. The cyanotype has remained famous in the history of photography thanks to her works. One of these is “Cyanotypes of British Algae”. In this way Anna Atkins printed and published Part I of British Algae, establishing the photograph as the precise medium for scientific illustration.

Anna Atkins stands out not only for her work, which is certainly noteworthy, but also for what it represents: she lived in a time when education as we know it today was a male prerogative and disciplines such as science or biology were closed to women. Anna Atkins, however, decided not to conform to the culture of the time and found her own way to express her passion for plants – including seaweed and ferns – and the natural world in general.

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