Cyanotype photograph
Anna Atkins (1799—1871).
Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.
Halstead Place, Sevenoaks, England: Anna Atkins, 1843—53
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library
Inscribed by the author to Sir John Herschel, Sevenoaks, October 1843

 
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Anna Atkins was the first woman photographer. She was also the first person to print and publish her own book illustrated entirely by photography. This work, British Algae, made clear the enormous potential of William Henry Fox Talbot's 1839 invention of photography on paper as, in his words, "every man his own printer and publisher." Moreover, Atkins's work showed how the new medium could overcome, as she wrote, "the difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Conferva," by the use of "Sir John Herschel's beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves."

Herschel, a good friend of Anna and her scientist father, had invented the cyanotype, better known today as the blueprint, in 1842. Atkins intended her work as a companion to William Harvey's unillustrated Manual of British Algae, published in 1841. Her work appeared in parts, published on a regular schedule over ten years, and while the edition was probably not many more than the dozen copies known today, it stands as an important and generally overlooked milestone in the history of scientific illustration.


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