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Anna Atkins, Cyanotype Pioneer


While cyanotypes are on my mind, I decided to do a little more research on the history of the process, and came across some fascinating information.

You create a cyanotype by coating paper with a 50/50 mixture of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. You then place objects such as feathers and plants onto the paper, and expose them to sunlight for a little while. You wash the exposed paper under a tap or in a water tray, which reveals the white outlines of the objects against a striking Prussian Blue background.

The first person to formulate this method was British astronomer Sir John Herschel in the 1840s. He developed it as a quick way of seeing plans and diagrams -- this gave birth to the term 'blueprint'. But the first person to use the cyanotype process in a significant way was a woman named Anna Atkins (1799-1871). Most of what follows draws on some excellent sources (here and here) containing a detailed account of her experiments.


Atkins' father was in contact with Herschel and another major pioneer of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot. It was after her father received information about the cyanotype process that Anna decided to create a series of her own: a catalogue of the plants and algae of the British Isles. She had already developed her drawing skills, and a keen interest in botany, but she was puzzled by the fact that scientific books of the time contained hardly any illustrations of the plants that they analysed in the writing. 

Drawing of clam shell by the young Anna Atkins
The cyanotype process must have attracted her, as it does anyone who tries it, by the alluring images of white shapes against a deep, rich Prussian Blue background. Given that she wanted to make a book of more than 300 pages, it wasn't the quickest method she could have chosen: each image for each page had to be printed by hand. So in the end, she only made about 20 versions of the book, of which about 15 have survived.


And it's not just the plants, which she arranged in a deliberately artistic composition before exposing them to sunlight: each plant is accompanied by its Latin name, written in Anna Atkins' beautiful script and similarly exposed via the cyanotype process. If I had to guess, it probably took her half a day to arrange, expose, rinse off, and fix one image. Therefore, about 150 days to make one copy of her book.

Anna Atkins in 1861
But thinking about the time she spent on this labour of love is not the main reason to commemorate Anna Atkins. She is a wonderful example of something we see frequently during the Victorian era, a point where scientific inquiry merges with an artistic sensibility to produce something which expands our knowledge by engaging the aesthetic sense (another example: the beautiful storytelling of Charles Darwin's prose in "The Origin of the Species). 


And here's one more remarkable thing: camera-based photography was about to get started in the 1840s, and it would be a field almost entirely dominated by men. But Anna Atkins produced what is probably the first photographic book, and she did it as a woman in a severely patriarchal society. 

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