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The First Female Photographer Spent 10 Years Making This 300+ Page Book

Anna Atkins' rare book "Photographs of British Algae" goes on display at the Rijksmuseum this summer.

by Beckett Mufson
May 23 2017, 3:56pm

Anna Atkins Photographs of British Algae Cyanotype Impressions. Purchased with the support of BankGiro Lottery, the W. Cordia Family/Rijksmuseum Fund and the Paul Huf Fund/Rijksmuseum Fund.

A book of over 300 images by photography and biology pioneer Anna Atkins, recognized as the world's first female photographer, was just acquired by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Photographs of British Algae, considered the first book illustrated with photographic images, will be a centerpiece of the institution's upcoming show, New Realities: Photography in the 19th Century.

Photographs of British Algae features 307 blueprint-like cyanotypes of seaweed and aquatic microorganisms captured between 1843 and 1853. About 20 copies of what The New York Public Library describes as "an important and generally overlooked milestone in the history of scientific illustration" are known to exist. The Rijksmuseum's is among the largest, most complete, and best preserved.

Anna Atkins Photographs of British Algae Cyanotype Impressions. Purchased with the support of BankGiro Lottery, the W. Cordia Family/Rijksmuseum Fund and the Paul Huf Fund/Rijksmuseum Fund.

Rijksmuseum General Director Taco Dibbits says, "Anna Atkins' work sits on the border between art and science. Apart from the historical significance, Atkins' images are characterized by their timeless beauty, which looks contemporary because of the abstraction of the silhouettes on the photographic paper." She's a role model to both women interested in STEM and female photographers.

Atkins, the daughter of a scientist, learned how to cyanotype directly from William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography on paper and a friend of her father's. The process involves exposing a subject between two layers of ferric salts to sunlight, which results in the brilliant Prussian blue hue. She produced thousands of images through this time-intensive, manual process between her first cyanotype in 1841 and her death in 1871. Below are a sampling of her legacy in the realms of both photography and biology.

Anna Atkins Photographs of British Algae Cyanotype Impressions. Purchased with the support of BankGiro Lottery, the W. Cordia Family/Rijksmuseum Fund and the Paul Huf Fund/Rijksmuseum Fund.

Anna Atkins Photographs of British Algae Cyanotype Impressions. Purchased with the support of BankGiro Lottery, the W. Cordia Family/Rijksmuseum Fund and the Paul Huf Fund/Rijksmuseum Fund

Anna Atkins Photographs of British Algae Cyanotype Impressions. Purchased with the support of BankGiro Lottery, the W. Cordia Family/Rijksmuseum Fund and the Paul Huf Fund/Rijksmuseum Fund

New Realities: Photography in the 19th Century, which also features work from Robert Macpherson, Antonio Cavilla, and George Hendrik Breitner, is on display at the Rijksmuseum from June 17 to September 17, 2017.

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