Thursday, May 17, 2007
Sea Leaves: The Cyanotypes of Anna Atkins
As I was researching the previous post and trolling the Internet for Victorian women explorers and/or naturalists, I recalled the Lady of the Algaes:
Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was a pioneer in the use of photography to document nature. In 1843 she published the scientific catalog Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, said to be the very first book of photographs. Her work manages to be intensely personal and stunningly beautiful, specimens of a time when science could seem as lyrical as poetry, although in Atkins' case some of this lyricism is arguably an accident of technique. The blue tint of her cyanotype impressions is a result of the chemical process she used, which was originated by Sir John Herschel, a friend of her father's. While she applied the technique as a more objective alternative to drawing from life, the results go beyond objective accuracy into the sublime. The dead specimens of algae, ghosts of light and nature, float against a virtual blue abyss in an ironic inversion of the romantic trope of pressing flowers in books to preserve them. In 2004 her work was featured in the exhibit Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature at the Drawing Center in New York City. The Center published a beautiful companion catalog by Catherine de Zegher, Carol Armstrong, Edward Eigen, Craigie Horsfield, Elaine Scarry, and Kathryn A. Tuma, which is, alas, currently out of print.
The reproductions above are from the first volume of Photographs of British Algae, and can be found on the New York Public Library Digital Gallery website.