The Legacy of Pioneering Victorian Photographer Anna Atkins Celebrated in Dual Exhibitions at The New York Public Library

Anna Atkins’s influential photographs to be shown concurrently with an installation of works by  contemporary artists guided by Atkins’s cyanotype imagery and process

August 30, 2018 — The work of Anna Atkins, one of the earliest woman photographers, is the impetus behind  two complementary exhibitions opening this fall at The New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Celebrating the 175th anniversary  of the debut of her landmark book, Photographs of British Algae, the exhibitions examine Atkins’s life and work, as well as her ongoing legacy. Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins -- the first full survey of Atkins’s major projects to be assembled -- examines Atkins’s achievements, situating them within the context of her time; Anna Atkins Refracted: Contemporary Works testifies to the resonance of her photographs for artists today.

In contrast to the constraints experienced by women in Victorian England, Atkins conceived, printed, and published Photographs of British Algae, a groundbreaking achievement in the history of photography and book publishing. Carried out between 1843 and 1853, British Algae was the first book illustrated solely by the nascent medium of photography, and the first systematic application of photography to science. Each page of the seminal volume was hand-printed exclusively using the cyanotype, or blueprint, process. Nearly a century later, the timeless appeal of her cyanotypes—known for their deep blue color—was rediscovered by historians and artists who have recognized her contributions in the field of photography.

Blue Prints explores Atkins's training, her artistic and scientific pursuits, and her timely embrace of the new medium of photography. Featuring seldom-seen letters, artifacts from family and museum archives, and rare cyanotype volumes depicting various species of seaweeds, and later, ferns, flowering plants, and feathers—the exhibition also highlights the key roles played by Atkins’s scientist father as well as by Sir John Herschel and William Henry Fox Talbot, pivotal figures in the invention of photography, in cultivating her ambitions.

Opening October 19 in the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery, Blue Prints includes items such as:

  • Comparative copies of her book Photographs of British Algae, including Atkins’s presentation copy to Sir John Herschel, the inventor of the cyanotype process

  • The only three known portraits of Anna Atkins

  • A rare album of watercolors, a gift from Atkins to her husband

  • An album presented by Anne Dixon, a collaborator of Atkins’s, to her nephew Henry Dixon in 1861, the only cyanotype album known to depict subjects other than algae or ferns

In addition to the Library's exhibition dedicated to the work of Atkins, the Schwarzman Building will also display recent photographs and video by current artists reflecting the spirit of Atkins's cyanotype images, her methodical approach, and her preoccupation with nature. This exhibition includes pieces from the mid-1990s through the present by a diverse group of international artists, several of whom have created installations expressly for this exhibition. These contemporary works range from experimental cyanotypes and photograms to time-based digital media. Anna Atkins Refracted opens on September 28 in the Rayner Special Collections Wing and Print Gallery on the third floor. Visitors can access audio commentary from select artists about their works and Atkins’ influence on their art through the Library’s website.

Exhibited artists include: 

Roy Arden, Erica Baum, Eric William Carroll, Susan Derges, Liz Deschenes, Kathleen Herbert, Katherine Hubbard, Mona Kuhn, Owen Kydd, María Martínez-Cañas, Meghann Riepenhoff, Alison Rossiter, Ulf Saupe, Lindy Smith, Kunié Sugiura, Penelope Umbrico, Mike Ware, Letha Wilson, Ellen Ziegler

Coinciding with these exhibitions, the Library will be publishing two books that attest to Atkins’s photographic achievements. One is an expanded edition of Larry J. Schaaf’s Sun Gardens, an in-depth study of Atkins’s work that first established her historical and artistic significance. The other is a facsimile of the Library’s copy of Photographs of British Algae, which is being produced by Steidl Verlag.  

The Library will also host several related public programs including:

  • A Meet the Artist series beginning October 2, in which artists Letha Wilson, Meghann Riepenhoff, Katherine Hubbard, Erica Baum, and Alison Rossiter will participate in individual hour-long conversations about their work in Anna Atkins Refracted

  • A conversation between Library curator Joshua Chuang and artist Meghann Riepenhoff celebrating the launch of Riepenhoff’s first monograph on October 17

  • How We See: Photobooks by Women, a conversation held on October 25 about avant-garde photobooks with Olga Yatskevich, co-founder of 10x10 Photobooks, Lesley Martin of Creative Director of Aperture Foundation, and Daria Tuminas of the Unseen Book Market and Unseen Dummy Award

  • A public symposium exploring various facets of Anna Atkins’s work on November 3

Blue Prints is co-organized by Joshua Chuang, The Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Associate Director for Art, Prints and Photographs, and The Robert B. Menschel Senior Curator of Photography and Larry J. Schaaf, independent scholar, with Emily Walz, Librarian, Art and Architecture

Anna Atkins Refracted is co-curated by Joshua Chuang, The Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Associate Director for Art, Prints and Photographs, and The Robert B. Menschel Senior Curator of Photography and Elizabeth Cronin, Assistant Curator of Photography

The exhibitions will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday and Thursday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday. Blue Prints will be open through February 17, 2019; Anna Atkins Refracted will be on view until January 6, 2019.

Support for The New York Public Library’s Exhibitions Program has been provided by Celeste Bartos, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos and Adam Bartos Exhibitions Fund, Jonathan Altman, and Miriam and Ira D. Wallach.

Additional support is provided by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation, Inc., in memory of Ruth and Seymour Klein

Press Contact: Amy Geduldig | 212.592.7177 |

About The New York Public Library

The New York Public Library is a free provider of education and information for the people of New York and beyond. With 92 locations—including research and branch libraries—throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, the Library offers free materials, computer access, classes, exhibitions, programming and more to everyone from toddlers to scholars, and has seen record numbers of attendance and circulation in recent years. The New York Public Library serves more than 18 million patrons who come through its doors annually and millions more around the globe who use its resources at To offer this wide array of free programming, The New York Public Library relies on both public and private funding. Learn more about how to support the Library at