A photograph of a cyanotype. A page colored a vivid deep blue. Silhouetted against the blue, in a much paler whitish blue, is the outline of a sample of seaweed or algae, labeled with its Latin name in the bottom left corner.

Anna Atkins (1799–1871)
Volume III of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions

Cyanotype, ca. 1853
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Spencer Collection


Volume III of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions

Transcript below

Anna Deavere Smith: Some objects are treasured for their beauty or rarity; some for what they reveal about history, technology, or science; and some are appreciated for all those reasons.

Take a close look at the image in front of you. Notice the delicate branching forms, some resembling fine filigree. This book is called Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, and it’s the first published book in history to be illustrated with photographs. But these pictures were not taken with a camera.

In the early 1800s, a time when men dominated the fields of both art and science, Anna Atkins was an amateur botanist and a skilled illustrator of natural specimens. In the 1840s, Atkins began experimenting with a new image-making process invented by her friend, the chemist and astronomer Sir John Herschel. Known as cyanotype, it involved the use of light-sensitive paper. As Atkins notes in her introduction: 

Actor: “The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects so minute as many of the Algae [...] has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves.”

Anna Deavere Smith: For each illustration, Atkins first coated a sheet of paper with a photosensitive solution. She then laid the plant specimen on top and covered it with a pane of glass before leaving it out in the sun. Sunlight turned the exposed areas a beautiful blue that deepened when the print was washed and dried. 

Atkins produced a small run of books over the course of a decade, repeating the process for each page of every copy of her book. Today, just 15 mostly complete copies are known to remain, each illustration a unique work of art—and science.

End of Transcript

No copyright: United States