How 19th-Century Photographer Anna Atkins Changed the Way We Look at Science

Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state & in fruit, from Part
XI of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850, cyanotype
Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state & in fruit, from Part XI of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850, cyanotype
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

When Anna Atkins finished the first part of her book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, she signed the introduction “A.A.” Nowhere among the nearly 400 hand-printed images of the final collection does her full name appear. A scholar studying her work decades later assumed that the initials stood for “anonymous amateur.”

Atkins’s Photographs of British Algae, produced between 1843 and 1853, was the first book illustrated exclusively with photographs and the first application of photography to science—making Atkins the first known female photographer. Atkins worked in an early kind of photography called cyanotype, which she learned directly from its creator, the famous astronomer Sir John Herschel, at the moment of its invention. An avid botanist, she even collected many of the seaweed specimens herself. But, despite her place in history, comparatively little is known about her artistic and scientific ideas.

“We know she was a reticent person,” says Joshua Chuang, co-curator (with Larry J. Schaaf and Emily Walz), of “Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins,” a new exhibition opening October 19 at the New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwartzman Building. “Even though she spent a long time and a lot of energy and resources making these photographs, she did not seek recognition or fame.”

Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Furcellaria fastigiata, from Part IV, version 2 of Photographs
of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
, 1846 or later, cyanotype
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Born in 1799 in Tonbridge, Kent, England, Anna was the only child of John George Children, a chemist and mineralogist, and later the keeper of zoology at the British Museum. Anna’s mother died a year after she was born. Anna and her father remained very close (his own mother had also died when he was an infant), and through him, Anna was introduced to the leading scientists and innovations at the turn of the 19th century.

In her first artistic undertaking, Anna assisted her father by hand-drawing more than 200 scientifically accurate illustrations for his translation of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s Genera of Shells, published in 1823. Anna’s marriage in 1825 to John Pelly Atkins, a wealthy West India merchant, gave her the time and freedom to pursue her passion for botany. She joined the Royal Botanical Society and collected seaweeds on her trips to English beaches; she also obtained specimens from botanical contacts around the world. By 1835, Children was enthusiastically promoting his daughter’s botanical collection and scientific interests to his colleagues, including William Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of negative-positive photography; and Sir John Herschel, the most famous scientist in England, who happened to be Children’s neighbor.

Herschel published a paper in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions describing his cyanotype process in 1842. The technique involved two iron-based compounds, ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, which were brushed onto regular paper and left in the dark to dry. Then, the photo negative or flat object to be photographed was placed over the paper and exposed to sunlight for several minutes. The paper was then washed in plain water. The combination of the iron compounds and water created a chemical reaction that produced Prussian blue pigment, revealing a deep blue permanent print with the item remaining the same color as the paper.

Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Halyseris polypodioides, from Part XII of Photographs of
British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
, 1849-1850, cyanotype
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Herschel taught Atkins his formula around 1842, and she began experimenting with the process then. Herschel's instructions gave her an advantage over other artists, Chuang tells Mental Floss. “There were DIY manuals, almost like cookbooks, for early photographers explaining how to mix the chemicals. But every one of these manuals mistranslated the cyanotype recipe, so no one was able to do it successfully. But because Atkins learned from the inventor himself, she was able to do it,” he says.

As Talbot and Herschel continued to develop their photographic methods, William Harvey, one of England’s most famous botanists, published A Manual of the British Marine Algae—without any illustrations. “All he had to distinguish one species from another, besides the different names, was a kind of visual description of what these things looked like, felt like, what the texture was,” Chuang says. “Atkins must have thought, ‘That’s insane, we have this new thing called photography—why don’t I use that to try to illustrate it?’”

At the time, books depicting botanical specimens were embellished with either hand-drawn impressions or actual specimens that had been dried, pressed, and glued to the pages. The first method was time-consuming and expensive; the results of the second were usually short-lived. “The cyanotype process would have appealed at once to Atkins,” Schaaf writes in his 1979 paper, “The First Photographically Printed and Illustrated Book.”

She recognized the potential of photography to improve scientific illustration in particular. “The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects so minute as many of the Algae and Confervae has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of cyanotype to obtain impressions of the plants themselves,” Atkins wrote in the introduction of Photographs of British Algae.

Atkins mixed the chemicals and prepared her own photosensitive paper. Some of the plates have tiny holes at the corners, suggesting that she pinned each plate to a board for drying. Her closest childhood friend and collaborator, Anne Dixon, shared Atkins’s zeal for collecting and photography and may have helped produced several of the later plates in Photographs of British Algae.

The work was published in parts, beginning in October 1843. Over the course of 10 years, Atkins regularly issued new plates as well as some replacement plates, an index, title pages, and handwritten assembly instructions to a selection of friends, botanical colleagues, and scientific institutions. Atkins intended the final three-volume collection to contain 14 pages of text and 389 plates measuring about 8 inches by 10 inches. Each recipient was responsible for adding the new plates and sewing them into the binding, which explains why the few existing copies of Photographs of British Algae are in different stages of completeness.

Unknown photographer, Portrait of Anna Atkins, ca. 1862, albumen print
Nurstead Court Archives

The book had little impact on the scientific world, though. William Harvey makes no mention of Atkins in subsequent editions of his book, which Atkins used as inspiration for hers. “They must have known each other or at least heard of each other,” Chuang says. “Harvey knew Herschel, and Herschel definitely would have told him about this project. But Harvey never mentions it.” A critic praised the book’s use of cyanotype for rendering delicate specimens, but within a few years, Photographs of British Algae and its anonymous author were forgotten.

Atkins continued to experiment with cyanotype, printing lace, feathers, ferns, and other botanical objects. But in the 1850s, botanists began using a more commercially viable printing process called nature printing, in which a specimen was pressed into a sheet of soft metal. The sheet could be inked and pressed onto paper, revealing previously unseen textures.

It wasn’t until 1889—18 years after Atkins’s death—that scholar William Lang, in a lecture about the cyanotype process before the Philosophical Society of Glasgow, identified Anna Atkins as the author of Photographs of British Algae.

Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Alaria esculenta, from Part XII of Photographs of British
Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
, 1849-1850, cyanotype
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

“The fact that her story and her work has survived is quite miraculous,” Chuang says. In the New York Public Library’s exhibition, its copy of Photographs of British Algae—which Atkins inscribed and gave to Herschel—will be on display, as well as new details about her life and the significance of her work.

“The book that she created is not only handmade, but there are no two copies that are alike,” Chuang adds. “It’s almost impossible to know what’s complete. And that’s true of what we know about her life; it’s a story that constantly in formation.”

Additional source: Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms by Anna Atkins

8 of Amazon's Bestselling Home Office Desks

JOISCOPE/Amazon
JOISCOPE/Amazon

If you've been working from home for the past six months (or longer), you're overdue for a high-quality office desk. And not just any old one, but a desk designed specifically for comfort and purpose, so you can organize everything you need for your 9-to-5 without having to worry about losing track of that important folder or planner.

The problem, though, is that there are so many options out there to choose from. That’s why we've stepped in to make the process a bit easier for you by compiling a list of the bestselling home office desks from Amazon. Check them out below.

1. Furinno Simplistic A-Frame Computer Desk; $237

Furinno/Amazon

This Furinno A-Frame desk is Amazon’s top home office desk at the moment. Though it may seem simple, sometimes that's all you need to make your space more efficient. The small desk hutch on top creates little cubbies for you to store papers, notebooks, or tools you may need throughout the day. There's even a bench on the bottom for you to put your feet up during the last few hours of the workday.

Buy it: Amazon

2. CubiCubi 40-inch Home Office Table; $95

CubiCubi/Amazon

For those looking for a sleek, modern desk that doesn't skimp on function, go for the CubiCubi. The metal frame, combined with the black wood surface, gives this table a sturdy, reliable feel. There's also a built-in side pocket to store all your papers out of eyesight but within arm’s reach. And according to the company, the whole thing should only take 10 minutes to assemble.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Coleshome 31-inch Computer Desk; $84

Coleshome/Amazon

This 31-inch desk from Coleshome is the perfect option for a small home office. Complete with adjustable leg pads for added stability, this desk can fit in any nook and is designed with simplicity in mind.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mr. Ironstone Black L-Shaped Desk; $130

Mr. IRONSTONE/Amazon

This unique L-shaped desk is perfect for anyone looking to fit their workstation into the corner of a room. Measuring at 50.8 inches on both sides, you’ll get the most out of your surface by adding multiple monitors, a printer, and books all around.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Furinno Efficient Home Desk with Side Shelves; $53

Furinno/Amazon

If you want to make your office feel more like a study, then you’ll need somewhere to store all your tomes. This Furinno desk can help you make space to work and house all your favorite books nearby to grab whenever you need them. The multilevel shelves help make this desk feel more modern, while also creating plenty of storage space.

Buy it: Amazon

6. JOISCOPE 40-inch Computer Desk; $110

JOISCOPE/Amazon

This desk comes packed with plenty of storage space for your things while also providing a large, sleek worktop for you to spread out all day long. The oak finish on top also adds a bit of sophistication to your workday, even if you spend your lunch break perusing the latest cat memes.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Seville Classics Ergonomic Mobile Desk Cart; $44

Seville/Amazon

Standing desks have become more popular in recent years as people look for more ways to improve their posture and overall health. The Seville Ergonomic Mobile Desk can help you achieve your physical goals while assisting you with your work. The desk's height can be adjusted from 20.5 inches to 33 inches, and it has four swivel wheels, two of which lock in case you want to stay in one spot.

Buy it: Amazon

8. ComHoma Black Writing Computer Desk Office Folding Table; $100

ComHoma/Amazon

For a modern design, there's the ComHoma writing desk. The sleek metal bars on the sides and back of the desk add style, not clutter, and the 39-inch tabletop will give you ample space to work on whatever projects come your way.

Buy it: Amazon

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The Notorious B.I.G.'s Iconic "King of New York" Crown Is Expected to Fetch More Than $200,000 at Auction

B.I.G. as the (K.O.N.Y), taken by Barron Claiborne.
B.I.G. as the (K.O.N.Y), taken by Barron Claiborne.
Sotheby's

The crown the Notorious B.I.G. donned for a portrait session on March 6, 1997, isn’t inherently valuable. Its gold base and inlaid gemstones are made of plastic, and P. Diddy even reportedly said Biggie looked like “the Burger King” while wearing it. As a cultural object, however, it’s priceless.

The legendary rapper was shot and killed just three days after he sat down for the session, and the photo of him staring dolefully into the camera lens, crown askew, is one of the most iconic images in music history.

The Notorious Burger King.Sotheby's

Soon we’ll find out how much someone is willing to pay to take the headgear home with them: Sotheby’s is auctioning it off on September 15, and it’s expected to fetch between $200,000 and $300,000. The crown, which is missing one point, still has pieces of foam along the inner rim that were added to make it fit more snugly. It’s also signed by the photographer, Barron Claiborne—and by Biggie, the “King of New York,” himself.

Claiborne's inscription reads "Crown from Biggie KONY Shot. 3-6-97."Sotheby's

Along with the crown, the buyer will receive three 36-inch-by-40-inch prints: the regular B.I.G. as the (K.O.N.Y) photograph; a 10th anniversary edition, titled Notorious B.I.G. as the (K.O.N.Y) Tunz-O-Gunz, which recreates the classic photo with a collage of tiny images of guns; and a contact sheet with nine shots from the session.

The lot is part of an auction devoted entirely to the history of hip-hop, a first for any major international auction house. Other items include a collection of love letters Tupac Shakur wrote to his high school sweetheart, Salt-N-Pepa’s matching “Push It” jackets, and more. You can explore the other offerings here.