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Cyanotypes, Photography and a Female Trail Blazer

An Inspirational Woman

As an artist and photographer, I’m often asked about inspiration. Usually, people are really asking where I get my ideas from. Inspiration, however, can come from many places including people who inspire us to keep going and aim higher. I want to tell you about one of these special people: a woman called Anna Atkins and her role in photographic history and cyanotypes.

Pick up any book on the history of photography and you will find it filled with the work of a variety of distinguished-looking gentlemen, no doubt photographed in all their very important-looking finery. Only rarely will you find any mention of female photographers; they’re simply ignored or omitted but they did exist. One of the first, in fact possibly the first, was Anna Atkins although for a long time she was ‘written out’ or ‘ignored’ in the history of photography. Why is open to debate, but it is likely a combination of her gender and that she worked using the cyanotype process that was much maligned by the ‘establishment’. Add those two factors together and it’s easy to see why for a long time there was no photo of Anna in those books.

Cyanotype created by Anna Atkins
Cyanotype created by Anna Atkins

Anna Atkins – Early years and education

She was born Anna Children on the 16th of March 1799 in Tonbridge, Kent to John and Hester Children. Her mother, unfortunately, died a short while later due to complications from childbirth leaving her husband John to raise their daughter. This was unfortunately quite common in those days, but how her father responded wasn’t.

John was a well-respected scientist and chemist, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He took the unusual step of ensuring his daughter received an education. Not only that but a scientific education, even though women were barred from most of the sciences at the time. Growing up 170 years or so later, my father took a similar approach (although for different reasons); and I know how unusual it was even in the late 20th century. So I can only imagine what it would have been like for Anna all those years ago. Thankfully her education did not go to waste, it’s known that Anna was interested in methods to accurately record scientific specimens and created detailed engravings for her father’s translation of Lamarck’s ‘Genera of Shells’ book in 1823. 

Cyanotype photograph created by Anna Atkins
Anna Atkins in 1861 aged 62.

Marriage and later years

In 1825 she married her husband John Atkins becoming Anna Atkins, the name we know her by today. They moved to near Sevenoaks, Kent where she continued her interest in botany. In fact the Botanical Society of London was one of the few societies open to women and Anna was elected a member in 1839 or 1840. 

The 1830s and 40s were exciting times, with scientific and technological advancements. Obviously for me one of the most exciting advancements was the birth of photography. Both Annas’ father and husband were known to be friends with Sir John Herschel and Henry Fox Talbot, who by this time were working on photographic processes. In fact the debate regarding who was the first woman to create a photograph centres between Anna and Constance Fox Talbot, Henry Fox Talbots’ wife. As an aside, Constance is also rarely mentioned in the history books, but was an artist in her own right and another fascinating lady.

A New Process called Cyanotype

Annas and her husband’s friendship with Sir John Herschel, however, led to what she is known for today. Herschel is mostly famous for his astronomy work, but he was a polymath Innventing the cyanotype process in 1842. A photographic process which gives a distinctive blue image (hence its name). The cyannotype was quickly taken up by Anna Atkins who saw its potential to improve the illustration of botanical subjects. 

The following year in 1843 she published ‘Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions’. Despite its name, the book concentrated predominantly on seaweed combining the process with her love of botany and illustration. This was the first book to be published illustrated using a photographic process. Unfortunately, it wasn’t well-received at the time unlike Fox Talbots ‘The Pencil of Nature’ which was published the following year. The reasons one was lauded more highly than the other aren’t clear, but it’s likely Anna’s gender was a factor.

Cyanotype from the first book to be illustrated with photographs
Cyanotype photograph created by Anna Atkins
Cover of Photographs of British Algae by Anna Atkins using Cyanotypes published in 1843

After her famous book was published

Anna Atkins then moved on to other botanical subjects such as ferns. She published more botanical books illustrated with cyanotypes (as well as works of fiction) but it is that first book for which she is mainly remembered. Images from the book are now held in various museums and institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Library also in London.

Anna Atkins is now widely amongst cyanotype artists, her legacy being reclaimed by women in the photographic arts. She is also acknowledged more by historians alongside other female photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron, although they still stand in the shade of their male counterparts.  

A Legacy for Women

As a woman living in modern 21st century Britain, I still face challenges because of my gender. The misogyny of the past has not been erased as much as many people hope and believe. The freedoms and rights we do have are because of amazing and brave women like Anna Atkins. I am so grateful to women like Anna who blazed a trail into the toxic masculinity of Victorian Society. The photographic arts are still male-dominated even today. However, thanks to women like her they are a lot more equal than they once were. This is why I find Anna Atkins an inspiration.

Cyanotypes ready to be exposed

You can view my own cyanotype images here on this site or in person at events. If you’d like to own a piece of original cyanotype art I have a small selection on my online shop. The process is also commonly considered ‘Alternative Photography’ which you can read about here.

I also made a vlog post on my YouTube channel about Anna for International Womens Day.