Skip to main content

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. 


Popular posts from this blog

How to etch a linoleum block

Linoleum as a material for printmaking has been used for nearly a hundred years now. Normally, you cut an image out using special gouges similar to woodcut tools, cutting away the lino around the image you want to print. This is called relief printmaking, because if you look at the block from the side, the material that remains stands up in relief from the backing material. You then roll ink with a brayer over the surface of the block, place paper over it, and either print by hand or run it through a press. You can do complex things this way (for example, reduction linocuts), but the beauty of the process is that it is quick, simple, and direct.

A few years ago, I saw some prints that were classified as coming from etched linoleum blocks, and I loved the textures I saw in them. In the last few months, I've been trying to use this technique in my own studio, learning about it as one does these days from websites and YouTube videos. I've also had email exchanges with several pr…

A List of Every Drink in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"

I first read Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises" when I was a teenager, and immediately fell in love with it. For the last couple of years, I have had the incredible privilege of teaching a class based around Hemingway in Paris -- while living and teaching in Paris itself, close to the Boulevard du Montparnasse, where most of the action of the novel's first half takes place.

Of the many things that one notices about the book, the colossal amount of drinking is something that stands out. These people didn't just drink like fish: they drank like whales, as if the ocean they swam in was alcohol and they had set themselves the task of drinking the seas of the world dry of it. During my read-through of the book before class started last year, I tried to underline every mention of drink in the book. And now, purely in the interests of science, I am listing the entire menu of booze mentioned directly by name. Some preliminary observations:
Most of this is…

Brancusi in Plastic

Artist Mary Ellen Croteau is showing these columns made from recycled plastic cartons and lids in the window of the Columbia College bookstore on Michigan Avenue. They are a playful homage to Brancusi's "Endless Columns", with a serious environmental message for our times:

Mary Ellen also runs a wonderful experimental art gallery in a window space in west Chicago, called Art on Armitage. I will be exhibiting a mixed media piece there during August 2012.