Anna Atkins

Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions

There is a difference between knowing and seeing, as neurologist Oliver Sacks discovered when a patient of his suddenly lost the ability to see color. “The ‘wrongness’ of everything was disturbing,” wrote Sacks, describing this man’s false sight: what he knew to be true was not what he saw with his eyes.

And yet, we affix truth to sight so easily, more than any other sense.

Isaac Cruikshank's "The Kentish Hop Merchant and the Lecturer on Optics"
“The Kentish Hop Merchant and the Lecturer on Optics” by Scottish caricaturist Isaac Cruikshank in 1809. The scientist presents on the promising future of optics, the audience member, a Kentish landowner who undoubtedly grew hops for the beer processing, mishears “Hop sticks.” Learn more. Science Museum Group.

The bond between sight and truth was tested in 1610 when mathematician and amateur astronomer Galileo Galilei showed the world (by way of telescopic-inspired drawings) that conventional wisdom of perfect heavens (fixed, unmoving and unlike earth) was simply untrue.

In this short treatise I propose great things for inspection and contemplation by every explorer of Nature. Great, I say, because of the excellence of the things themselves, because of their newness, unheard of through the ages, and also because of the instrument with the benefit of which they make themselves manifest to our sight.

From Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius published in 1610.

“Look!” he might have shouted through the cobbled streets of Pisa, “I made these drawings based on what I saw through this tiny scope and the moon has mountains! Jupiter has moons! Trust me, I made a drawing!”

sidereus nuncius
Galileo’s drawing of the moon’s mountains and plains as seen through his hand-made telescope. Published in Galileo’s “Sidereus Nuncius” in 1610.

The concept of heaven might have changed (eventually) but human reliance on sight to deliver truth remained uncontested.1

And as compelling as Galileo’s drawings were, they were facsimile.

Imagine, (someone must have asked at least once) if we could capture those mountains ourselves on paper! And show it to everyone through the years!

A photograph is a natural progression in the field of optics, light, color, etc., but it was only with the advancement of chemistry that it became technically possible. In the 19th century field of scientific polymaths, botanist Anna Atkins (March 16, 1799 – June 9, 1871) turned to photography as a means to show her herbarium and ended up publishing the world’s first photographic book.

Anna Atkins’ collected seed plants, supplied to botanists at Kew Gardens and donated to the British Museum in 1865. Source: Natural History Museum.

In 1843 Atkins published what is now known as the first photographically-illustrated book: Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Additional editions followed in 1843 and 1853 featuring a total of 411 plates arranged and labeled by Atkins.

Frontispiece for Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.
Anna Atkin's Introduction to 'Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions' by Anna Atkins.
Anna Atkin’s Introduction to ‘Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions’ by Anna Atkins.

A cyanotype works by brushing paper with photo sensitive chemicals (ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide) and then centering the object on top. The paper and object are then placed in light for 10 to 40 minutes and while the paper turns blue, the area covered by the object remains white.

The object – or its image – is therefore the absence of light.

Image from Anna Atkin's "Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions'" in the Examined Life Library.
Himanthalia lorea.

It’s a plant but it returns us to this issue of sight and truth for it is not a plant. It’s the photographic absence of a plant.

Rather beautiful isn’t it?

Image from Anna Atkin's "Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions'" in the Examined Life Library.
Polysiphonia violacea.
Cystoseira granulata.
Cystoseira granulata.
Image from Anna Atkin's "Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions'" in the Examined Life Library.
Sargassum Bacciferum.

A particular standout is Bangia fusco-purpurea whose hair-like strands recall mermaid hair but which on the cyanotype appears like a small bush aflame. Atkins would have chosen how to display each of the 411 specimens and handwritten each of their scientific names.

Image from Anna Atkin's "Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions'" in the Examined Life Library.
Bangia fusco-purpurea.
Image from Anna Atkin's "Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions'" in the Examined Life Library.
Cystoseira ericoides.
Image from Anna Atkin's "Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions'" in the Examined Life Library.
Laminaria saccharina.
Image from Anna Atkin's "Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions'" in the Examined Life Library.
Cystoseira foeniculacea.

Sight might be fact, but it certainly isn’t truth. Not to me anyway. Truth is eternally sought and unknown simultaneously, felt rather than seen, wider than the horizon and higher than a tower of stacked dreams. Fact is what passes for truth while we pummel truth into something else.2

Truth is also an issue for another day.

Back to Atkins and this revelatory body of work, a beautiful, innovative practical use of cutting-edge science.

Edward Lear’s nonsense illustration ‘Tickia Orologica’ from A Book of Nonsense published in 1861.
I keep thinking of Virginia Woolf and her sly pondering about conditions necessary for the creation of art. Ultimately, you need to be in the room, included in the process, knowledgeable about the knowledge.

For women of the time, Atkins had unusual access to scientific knowledge. Although botany was generally more open to woman (the genteel drawing of specimens encouraged) she received rare access to lectures through her father’s position at the British Museum and Royal Societies. Atkins thus knew and studied the early inventors of the cyanotype process and the camera – inventors such as John Herschel and William Henry Fox Talbot.

Anna Atkins, 1861.

Accompany Anna Atkin’s beautiful creation with Mark Hearld’s joyful art, Walt Whitman’s harmony of nature and human, Gertrude Jekyll’s devotion to plant color (written when she was practically blind), and Emma Mitchell’s incantation of self in nature.



All images are from William Henry Fox Talbot’s personal copy of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions courtesy of the Science Museum Group. Learn more.