Today, we’re used to scientific texts being illustrated with detailed photography. But in 1843, a publication by photographer and botanist Anna Atkins was the first book illustrated with photographic images.
Atkins was born in 1799. Her mother passed away in 1800, and Anna grew up very close to her father, scientist John George Children. Her father allowed her an “unusually scientific education for a woman” and even used her engravings of shells for a translated publication of the Genera of Shells.
She married in 1825, and moved to Halstead Place in Kent where she collected dried plants and began to experiment with photograms. Through her father and husband’s connections she met photography pioneers William Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John Herschel who taught her their techniques. Herschel invented the cyanotype, a process that uses ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferricyanide to produce a cyan-blue image and was primarily used for reproducing blueprints.
Atkins adapted the technique by placing algae and seaweed on the treated paper. She self-published Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in 1843. In the introduction, she stated that “the difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the algae and confera has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of cyanotype, to obtain impression of the plants themselves.”
She later produced two more volumes in the series which contained 424 cyanotype photograms in total. In order to create multiple identical prints, Atkins developed a process of arranging her specimens on sheets of glass. This enabled her to create by some estimates at least 5,000 original prints on the hand coated paper.
She also collaborated with another botanist, Anne Dixon, on the books Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns and Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns. She became a member of the Botanical Society in London in 1839.
Cyanotypes are difficult to preserve and very few copies of her books survive, with the British Library and the New York Public Library providing scans on their websites. Atkins also published books of non-photographic work before her death in 1871 at the age of 72.
Written by Mary Ratliff