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.
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 who 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.
In 1825 she married her husband John Atkins becoming Anna Atkins, the name we know her by today and moved to Halstead near Sevenoaks, Kent. After her marriage, she continued her interest in botany, one of the few sciences open to women, and was elected a member of the Botanical Society of London in 1839/40, one of the few societies open to women. 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.
Annas and her husband’s friendship with Sir John Herschel, however, led to what she is known for today. Sir John Herschel is mostly famous for his astronomy work, but was in fact a polymath who invented the cyanotype process in 1842. A photographic process which gives a distinctive blue image (hence its name) that was quickly taken up by Anna who saw its potential to improve the illustration of botanical subjects. The following year in 1843 she published ‘Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions’ which, despite its name, 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 for one being lauded more highly than the other aren’t clear, but it’s easy to imagine Anna’s gender being a factor.
Anna then moved on to other botanical subjects such as ferns, and 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.
Today Anna Atkins is a name known widely amongst cyanotype artists and her legacy is being reclaimed by women in the photographic arts. She is also being acknowledged more by historians, although she (along with other female photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron) still stands in the shade of their male counterparts.
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, but the freedoms and rights we do have are because of amazing and brave women like Anna Atkins. As a female photographic artist and photographer, I am so grateful to women like her who blazed a trail into the toxic masculinity of Victorian Society. The photographic arts are still male-dominated even today, but thanks to women like her they are a lot more equal than they once were. This is why I find Anna Atkins an inspiration.
You can view some of my own cyanotype images here on this site, in person at events (check the ‘Upcoming Events’ section on the right) and on my social media feeds. 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 which you can find here or watch below.