University of Aberdeen, Scotland
A World in Blue: Anna Atkin’s Cyanotypes
Utilising John Herschel’s cyanotype method, Atkins created the first photographic work by a woman. Atkins’s self-published book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843) pre-dated William Henry Fox Talbot’s essay titled Pencil of Nature which was published in 1844. Talbot’s book is widely considered to be the first printed book illustrated with photographs, lesser known, however, is Atkins’ seminal work on botany. Atkins successfully created photograms made by contact prints from her collection of plants and herbarium. Along with her assistant, Anne Dixon, the prints featured in the book were individually hand-printed; some were sewn and made into textile specimens.
This paper will examine Atkins’s work within the context of nineteenth century attitudes towards the education of women and the early origins of photography. The cyanotype ‘is a process of documenting’ and Atkins used this to showcase her knowledge of botany at a time when women were permitted only on the periphery of higher education. The resulting image from this process is a distinct Prussian blue print, sensitive to ultraviolet and blue light. Only water is required to fix and develop the print however, it had limited commercial capabilities due to its unique blue colour. An analysis of women’s roles in early photography will also be discussed as well as an in-depth study of Atkins’ overall contribution to the representation of female photographers in the nineteenth century.