Anna Atkins - the story behind Cyanotypes

On Saturday, August 14th, the Newington Green Meeting House will be hosting an exhibition about plants, part of which is teaching children how to make photographs of plants called cyanotypes. But unlike ordinary photographs, cyanotypes are a special type of photograph with a special history of dissent. What, or who, makes cyanotypes so noteworthy? 

Anna Atkins was born in 1799 in Kent, England, to a father named John Children. She had a close relationship with her father, who was a respected scientist. Due to this close relationship, Anna’s father educated her in science, and she learned how to illustrate accurate pictures of plants and shells. This education in science was an opportunity that very few women were allowed to have.  During her early twenties, she drew hundreds of illustrations of shells that were published in her father’s work. 

Anna Atkins

Later, through her father, Anna had contact with Sir John Herschel, who invented a photographic process called cyanotype. Cyanotype is a sheet of paper covered in two types of chemicals, and if you place a plant on top of it and leave it in the sun, a detailed image of the plant will be left on the paper. The implications of this invention were huge for Anna, who previously had to draw hundreds of accurate plant images by hand.   

One of Anna’s early cyanotypes

Anna, who was frustrated by the lack of illustrations in guides on British algae, decided to write her own guide on British algae that included illustrations. This guide was called British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.  In order to make the illustrations, Anna meticulously arranged the algae on top of cyanotype paper, and had to leave it outside in the sun for the exact right amount of time. She repeated this process hundreds of times, which resulted in her book being filled with detailed plant images on striking blue backgrounds. Her guide on algae was the first book to ever include photographs.

However, this was not the only quality that made Anna noteworthy; her work also made her the first female photographer. Anna’s work of scientific and artistic brilliance shows what happens when women are given access to education, and encouragement to follow their passions.  

 

To read more about Anna Atkins, check out these links: 

 

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