In a small gallery of the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the life of one of the earliest woman photographers is reassembled. Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins is luminous with organic shapes against seas of Prussian blue. These cyanotypes were created by placing dried specimens on light-sensitive paper and exposing them to the sun. Months before photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot published his more famous The Pencil of Nature, Anna Atkins created the 1843 Photographs of British Algae, a botanical monograph now recognized as the first book illustrated with photography.
Born in 1799, Atkins had more opportunities than most Victorian women. At her home in Kent, England, her father, scientist John George Children, encouraged her creative pursuits. One of their family friends was Sir John Herschel, who discovered the cyanotype in 1842. She would spend years experimenting with the novel photographic process, expanding each edition of British Algae and giving the books to her prominent friends like Talbot and Herschel. By 1853, British Algae was three volumes and involved 389 unique photographic plates. Yet she only signed the publication “A. A.”
“[Her] obscurity was mainly due to the fact that Atkins didn’t strive for recognition, and perhaps as a result, clues about her life and her cyanotype project were either not preserved, forgotten about, or scattered about in hitherto unknown places,” said Josh Chuang, the NYPL’s Miriam & Ira D. Wallach associate director for art, prints and photographs, and the Robert B. Menschel senior curator of photography. Chuang organized Blue Prints with independent scholar Larry J. Schaaf and Librarian of Art and Architecture Emily Walz.
Atkins explained her purpose in an introduction to British Algae:
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, which I have much pleasure in offering to my botanical friends …
Many of these friends cited her contributions to photography and science in their publications, but she did not seem to seek wider fame. After her death in 1871, her name quickly faded. When historian and book collector William Lang, Jr. wrote an article about British Algae in the late 1800s, he posited “A. A.” stood for “Anonymous Amateur” until he was corrected by a curator at the British Museum. It wasn’t until the 1980s that her work got attention beyond specialists. Larry Schaaf, a researcher who happened on Atkins while investigating the work of Herschel, published Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms by Anna Atkins in 1985, finally introducing general photography audiences to her work.
“While many burning queries remain unanswered, over the past 25 or so years, various clues to other questions have emerged from unexpected corners,” Chuang stated. He noted that this is partly due to a greater availability of her work online. “As more institutional holders of her work have digitized their collections, we have a better sense now, for instance, of the labor that went into making her book Photographs of British Algae, their consistencies and differences, and her methods.”
Schaaf and Chuang used this recent research to revise and expand a new edition of Sun Gardens, which has been out-of-print since the 1990s. Meanwhile, Blue Prints brings together objects from around the world to tell the long fragmentary narrative of her life. Rare photographs of Atkins, pages from her herbarium, and her letters join a central assembly of British Algae editions to visualize her exacting and evolving skill with photography. The exhibition shows how she experimented beyond botanical illustration, with examples of 1850s collaborations with her childhood friend Anne Dixon. These cyanotypes involved feathers, ferns, and flowering plants, arranged for art instead of science.
Upstairs, in the hallways adjacent to the Rose Main Reading Room, is a companion exhibition of contemporary art. Anna Atkins Refracted: Contemporary Works, co-curated by Chuang with Assistant Curator of Photography Elizabeth Cronin, features 19 artists influenced by Atkins or the legacy of this early photographic process. For instance, Liz Deschenes and Penelope Umbrico spent time with Atkins’s art in the NYPL’s Study Room for their exhibited work.
“Anna Atkins is an exception during the 19th century,” said Cronin. “She’s a female photographer, and one who’s working shortly after the medium had been invented. Because she is a pioneering woman, she is a model for many contemporary female artists. Atkins is also influential to contemporary eyes because her imagery is simple and beautiful.”
Together, the two exhibitions emphasize that Atkins’s art is available to all to appreciate through NYPL, whether its digitized version or firsthand in the Study Room. As Chuang stated, “We were interested in underscoring the context of the library, whose primary function is to provide access to its vast collections to researchers — including artists — and hopefully inspire them to follow their curiosity to productive ends.”
Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins continues through February 17, 2019 in the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (476 Fifth Avenue, Midtown West, Manhattan).