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, Furcellaria fastigiata, in Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
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, Halyseris polypodioides, in Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
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.

Portrait of Anna Atkins, ca. 1862
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, Alaria esculenta, in Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
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

This Smart Accessory Converts Your Instant Pot Into an Air Fryer

Amazon
Amazon

If you can make a recipe in a slow cooker, Dutch oven, or rice cooker, you can likely adapt it for an Instant Pot. Now, this all-in-one cooker can be converted into an air fryer with one handy accessory.

This Instant Pot air fryer lid—currently available on Amazon for $80—adds six new cooking functions to your 6-quart Instant Pot. You can select the air fry setting to get food hot and crispy fast, using as little as 2 tablespoons of oil. Other options include roast, bake, broil, dehydrate, and reheat.

Many dishes you would prepare in the oven or on the stovetop can be made in your Instant Pot when you switch out the lids. Chicken wings, French fries, and onion rings are just a few of the possibilities mentioned in the product description. And if you're used to frying being a hot, arduous process, this lid works without consuming a ton of energy or heating up your kitchen.

The lid comes with a multi-level air fry basket, a broiling and dehydrating tray, and a protective pad and storage cover. Check it out on Amazon.

For more clever ways to use your Instant Pot, take a look at these recipes.

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27 Awesome Vintage Photos of Moms

Turns out leash kids aren't a new phenomenon.
Turns out leash kids aren't a new phenomenon.
General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While you celebrate your mom, take a look back at mothers through the ages. 

1. January 1860: A mother and children in the parlor.

Mother and children in the parlour
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

2. 1876: A mother with her adolescent daughter.

A mother with her adolescent daughter
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

3. 1885: A young couple take the opportunity to have a cuddle while mother is asleep over her paper.

 A young couple take the opportunity to have a cuddle while mother is asleep over her paper
Otto Herschan Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

4. 1890: Collecting peat in the Killarney countryside, County Kerry, a barefooted mother carries a basket on her back while her young children sit at her feet.

Collecting peat In the Killarney countryside, County Kerry, a barefooted mother carries a basket on her back while her young children sit at her feet
Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

5. 1900: A Native American mother of the Hopi tribe with a child on her back.

American native mother of the Hopi tribe with a child on her back.
Edward S. Curtis/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

6. 1900: A mother gives her daughter a drink at the bar of a public house, while the baby sleeps in a pram beside her.

A mother gives her daughter a drink at the bar of a public house, while the baby sleeps in a pram beside her
Fox Photos/Getty Images

7. 1910: A child sits quietly as his mother knits Shetland wool into jumpers.

A child sits quietly as his mother knits Shetland wool into jumpers
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

8. 1910: A mother walks with her baby and holds the new Sturgis baby carriage, which can be folded up and carried.

A mother walks with her baby and holds the new Sturgis baby carriage which can be folded up and carried
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

9. 1911: A child plays in the sand with her spade, whilst her mother and aunt look on, at a riverside spot in Fulham, London.

A child plays in the sand with her spade, whilst her mother and aunt look on, at a riverside spot in Fulham, London
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

10. 1920: Motor meeting at Brooklands, Weybridge, Surrey. Competitor Ivy Cummings and her mother in their racing car.

Motor meeting at Brooklands, Weybridge, Surrey. Competitor Ivy Cummings and her mother in their racing car
Topical Press Agency/Getty Image

11. 1925: A woman keeps a firm grip on a rope tied around her daughter's waist during a cliff-top walk.

A mother holds a rope attached to her daughter's waist
General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

12. 1925: A Palestinian mother in typical dress holding her child.

A Palestinian mother in typical dress holding her child
Chalil Raad/Three Lions/Getty Images

13. 1926: A mother gets all the exercise she needs pushing her pram and cycling at the same time and the baby gets a taste for speed at an early age.

A mother gets all the exercise she needs pushing her pram and cycling at the same time
Fox Photos/Getty Images

14. 1930: A mother enjoying a tea party with her young daughter.

A mother enjoying a tea party with her young daughter circa 1930's
Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images

15. 1930: A mother fans her baby who is lying on a cushion on the floor.

A Japanese mother fans her baby who is lying on a cushion on the floor
Topical Press Agency/Getty Image

16. 1932: A small girl in a push chair modeled on a horse-drawn carriage, out for a stroll in Hyde Park, London, with her mother and a Great Dane.

A small girl in a push chair modelled on a horse-drawn carriage, out for a stroll in Hyde Park, London, with her mother and a Great Dane
Fox Photos/Getty Images

17. 1935: Mother and daughter sunbathing in similar knitted costumes.

Mother and daughter sunbathing in similar knitted costumes
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

18. 1935: A mother towing her children to school at Burrowbridge near Bridgewater during severe flooding.

A mother towing her children to school at Burrowbridge near Bridgewater during severe flooding
Martin/Fox Photos/Getty Images

19. March 1936: June Bishop (left) who is 3 years old, seen with her mother who owns a pet shop in Alton, Hampshire. June takes her pet sheep out with her wherever she goes, rather like the nursery rhyme.

A mother walks her two children, one of whom is walking a sheep
Fox Photos/Getty Images

20. 1937: A mother fastening a notice reading "Please Mr Motorist, watch out for me," onto her son's back before he sets out on a trial bicycle ride.

1937: A mother fastening a notice reading 'Please Mr Motorist, watch out for me', onto her son's back before he sets out on a trial bicycle ride
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

21. 1940: A mother and her baby ready for evacuation from London, under a London County Council Scheme. The mother is carrying a gas mask designed especially for babies.

A mother and her baby ready for evacuation from London
Fox Photos/Getty Images

22. 1950: Mother and child looking at the monkey cage at a zoo in Puerto Rico.

Mother and child looking at the monkey cage at a zoo in Puerto Rico
Victor Kayfetz/Three Lions/Getty Images

23. 1950: A baby girl and her mother play with a harmless Indigo snake at a serpentarium.

A baby girl and her mother play with a harmless Indigo snake at a serpentarium
Three Lions/Getty Images

24. 1953: A woman seeing her newborn baby while lying inside an iron lung as part of her treatment for Polio.

A woman seeing her new born baby whilst lying inside an iron lung as part of her treatment for Polio
Keystone/Getty Images

25. 1960: Proud mother Liu Wan-Fu displays her 6-month-old quadruplets, a girl and three boys.

A proud mother displays her quadruplets
Keystone/Getty Images

26. 1963: Sixteen-year-old trainee chef Peter Maddox of Hollingworth, Cheshire, practices his hobby of fire-eating out of the window, as his mother and 9-month-old brother look on.

Sixteen year old trainee chef Peter Maddox of Hollingworth, Cheshire practises his hobby of fire-eating out of the window,
Keystone/Getty Images

27. 1970: Portrait of a mother sitting with her young girl.

Portrait of a mother sitting with her young girl, circa 1970
Dwayne Bey/Getty Images