Anna Atkins (Mar 16, 1799 – Jun 9, 1871) was an English botanist and photographer. She is often considered the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images. Some sources claim that she was the first woman to create a photograph.
John George Children and John Pelly Atkins were friends of William Henry Fox Talbot. Anna Atkins learned directly from Talbot about two of his inventions related to photography: the “photogenic drawing” technique (in which an object is placed on light-sensitized paper which is exposed to the sun to produce an image) and calotypes.
Atkins was known to have had access to a camera by 1841. Some sources claim that Atkins was the first female photographer. Other sources name Constance Talbot, the wife of William Fox Talbot, as the first female photographer. As no camera-based photographs by Anna Atkins nor any photographs by Constance Talbot survive, the issue may never be resolved.
Sir John Herschel, a friend of Atkins and Children, invented the cyanotype photographic process in 1842. Within a year, Atkins applied the process to algae (specifically, seaweed) by making cyanotype photograms that were contact printed “by placing the unmounted dried-algae original directly on the cyanotype paper.”
Detail of title page of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
Atkins self-published her photograms in the first installment of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in October 1843. Although privately published, with a limited number of copies, and with handwritten text, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions is considered the first book illustrated with photographic images.
Eight months later, in June 1844, the first fascicle of William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature was released; that book was the “first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published” or “the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs.”
Atkins produced a total of three volumes of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions between 1843 and 1853. Only 17 copies of the book are known to exist, in various states of completeness. Copies are now held by the following institutions, among others:
British Library, London, which provides scans of 429 pages of its copy (which has extra plates) online
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
New York Public Library, which provides scans of 285 pages of its copy online
Royal Society, London, whose copy with 403 pages and 389 plates is thought to be the only existing copy of the book as Atkins intended
Victoria & Albert Museum London houses a number of original works in their library.
The Linnean Society of London, whose copy lacks part 7 of volume 1.
Because of the book’s rarity and historical importance, it is quite expensive. One copy of the book with 411 plates in three volumes sold for £133,500 at auction in 1996. Another copy with 382 prints in two volumes which was owned by scientist Robert Hunt (1807–1887) sold for £229,250 at auction in 2004.
Cyanotype photogram of Wood Horsetail from the 1853 book Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns by Atkins and Dixon
In the 1850s, Atkins collaborated with Anne Dixon (1799–1864), who was “like a sister” to her, to produce at least three presentation albums of cyanotype photograms:
Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns (1853), now in the J. Paul Getty Museum;
Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854), disassembled pages of which are held by various museums and collectors;
An album inscribed to “Captain Henry Dixon,” Anne Dixon’s nephew (1861).
In addition, she published books with non-photographic work.
She died at Halstead Place in 1871 of “paralysis, rheumatism, and exhaustion” at the age of 72.
On 16 March 2015, Internet search engine Google commemorated Atkins’s 216th birthday by placing a Google Doodle image of bluish leaf shapes on a darker background on its search page to represent her cyanoprint work.