She died almost three decades before the dawn of the 20th century. From seaweeds, she would discover mermaid’s purses. She was an artist, an explorer, a treasure hunter, and a scientist. She is Anna Atkins, often referred to as the first female photographer in the world.
The explorer duo
Anna Atkins was born Anna Children on 16th March 1799 in Tonbridge, Kent. Her mother failed to recover from the effects of childbirth and died soon after. But Anna grew up to develop a strong bond with her father, John Children. The father-daughter duo was partners in the exploration of the wild, as her father opened a new world for her of wonder and imagination. They would discover clambering insects, dancing poppies, and cuttlefish bones white as clouds. The blue sky and sea were regular companions of their lives.
Anna would take her discoveries back to her home where she and her father would spend a substantial amount of their time inspecting these diverse creatures. Her father, a scientist held with much reverence in his time, made sure that his daughter would receive the best levels of education. He equipped her with physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, biology, and Latin. His passion for entomology, the study of insects, transferred into her and became one of the main purposes of her life.
A skilled artist
By her mid-twenties, Anna had turned into a skilled draftsman, presenting lithographs and images of scientific specimens that characterized extreme precision of details. In fact, her engravings were her first scientific contribution. Anna’s 256 shell engravings were used as illustrations in her father’s translation of Genera of Shells by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. In 1840, Anna and her father began producing calotypes and photogenic drawings. These were two new procedures in the world of photography announced by Henry Fox Talbot. Photographic drawings were initiated in 1839 while calotypes were announced in 1841. While no known specimens of the calotype works of either Anna or her father exist, their enthusiasm towards this medium was well known, with Children buying a calotype camera for Anna to begin their experimentations.
Talbot’s photographic drawings of plants stood as a more productive medium for Anna and her father. Anna utilized this method to record seaweed specimens with photograms. These she published in British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, her serial publication from 1843 to 1853, which has been acknowledged by many scholars to be the first book with photographic-illustrations. In it, she used the newer process of cyanotype photograph. Sir John Herschel, a friend of the family, had invented the photographic method of cyanotype creation in 1842, which could produce more permanent images. This process was then adopted by Anna.
“Flowers of the sea”
From 1842, Anna applied the cyanotype process regularly. She coated the paper with a formula of potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate mixture. Then she dried the paper and exposed it for just a few minutes to light. As for negatives, she applied fine specimens of ‘Himanthalia lorea’ and ‘Ptilota sericea’. With the pressure of sheets of mica or glass, these negatives contact printed, producing photograms that displayed strikingly dreamy white images of the specimens against a rich Prussian blue background. The resulting works not only appeal even today with their abstract simplicity and surrealism, but they also stand out due to their authenticity. The works accurately represented the structure, size, and shape of each fragile “flower of the sea”. The blueprint medium was effective and appropriate for delineating these delicate specimens.
By the 1850s, multiple other books were published which presented mounted dried specimens or drawn specimens. Moreover, Alois Auer’s technique of nature printing had also become a highly popular process for the creation of images. The result of such was that Anna’s works gradually turned obsolete. However, seeing them today, the blue hues evoke a sense of peace, heightened by the delicateness of the subject matter. Altogether they produce in the viewer’s mind a feeling of tranquility and simplicity often missing from the technology-dominated creations of modern artists.