British photographic history

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Exhibition: 'Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins' / New York, until 17 February 2019

What is interesting to me is not just Atkins choice of the new medium of photography to describe, both scientifically and aesthetically, the beauty and detail of her collection of seaweeds; but within that new medium of photography, she chose not the photogenic or calotype process, but the graphic cyanotype process with its vivid use of the colour blue, a 'means of reproducing notes and diagrams, as in blueprints'.

Here we have a process that reproduces reality as in a diagram, a diagrammatic process that is then doubly reinforced when Atkins places her specimens directly on the cyanotype paper producing a photogram, a photographic image made without a camera. The resultant negative shadow image shows variations in tone that are dependent upon the transparency of the objects used. (Wikipedia)

Atkins photographs, produced "with great daring, creativity, and technical skill" are "a groundbreaking achievement in the history of photography and book publishing." While Atkins' books can be seen as the first systematic application of photography to science, each photograph used for scientific study or display of its species or type, there is a much more holistic creative project going on here.

Can you imagine the amount of work required to learn the calotype process, gather your thoughts, photograph the specimens, make the prints, write the text to accompany the images, and prepare the number of volumes to self-publish the book, all within a year? For any artist, this amount of concentrated, focused work requires an inordinate amount of time and energy and, above all, a clear visualisation of the outcome that you want to achieve.

That this was achieved by a woman in 1843, "in contrast to the constraints experienced by women in Victorian England," makes Atkins achievement of scientific accuracy, ethereal beauty and sublime transcendence in her photographs truly breathtaking.

Dr Marcus Bunyan


Anna Atkins (1799-1871)
Ulva latissima, from Volume III of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations


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