Tech by VICE

The Hauntingly Beautiful Photos of Anna Atkins, Creator of Botanical Photography

How a pigment called Prussian Blue led to the world’s first botanical photographs.

by Becky Ferreira
Mar 16 2015, 9:05pm

Dictyota dichotoma algae cyanotype. Credit: Anna Atkins

Today marks the 216th birthday of Anna Atkins, who authored the world's first book of photographs. The rare collection, entitled Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, was published in parts beginning in October 1843, and remains a scientific and artistic touchstone over a century and a half later.

Atkins was born into a culture that actively squelched the ambitions of women scientists, but she was determined to make a mark nonetheless. Fortunately, her father John George Children was not only an influential scientist himself, but also an open-minded educator who encouraged his daughter's intellectual and artistic pursuits, and even collaborated with her on some of his projects.

Himanthalia lorea algae. Credit: Anna Atkins

Children's unfailing confidence in Atkins shaped her life so positively that she published a loving memoir about him a year after he died. It includes a bunch of incredibly adorable poems he wrote to her as a child, calling her his "little, tiny Muse."

Cyanotype of Carix (America). Credit: Anna Atkins

As if his obvious love and support weren't enough of a boost for Atkins, Children's status as a Royal Society fellow and respected polymath also exposed her to 19th century scientific circles. That led to some premium networking opportunities, and by the 1840s, Atkins had established her own reputation as a talented scientific illustrator and keen botanist. She was even granted membership to the Botanical Society of London in 1839.

A cyanotype of Festuca grass. Credit: Anna Atkins

But it wasn't until she found herself hanging out with early photographers like William Henry Fox Talbot and John Herschel that Atkins truly zeroed in on her most memorable work. In 1842, Herschel invented the cyanotype method of photographic printing—the precursor to blueprints. The key was developing an iron compound known as "Prussian Blue," which acts as a light-sensitive pigment. When objects treated with the pigment are exposed to sunlight against a paper print, a negative image is formed.

Cystoseira granulata algae. Credit: Anna Atkins

Herschel used his technique to make copies of written documents, but Atkins immediately saw its potential to capture the intricate beauty of plants. "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 impressions of the plants themselves," Atkins wrote in 1843.

Laminaria digitata algae. Credit: Anna Atkins

Atkins published several more books of botanical cyanotypes over the ensuing decades, before passing away in 1871. She was truly a visionary with this burgeoning technology, as well as a powerful example of why women's science education is so crucial to progress and discovery. Though she was born exactly 216 years ago, Atkins's contribution to the worlds of both art and science remain timeless to this day.

A cyanotype from one of Atkins's later books on ferns. Credit: Anna Atkins