SET AGAINST that bright Prussian blue background, like alabaster ballerinas of sun and light and frozen movement, Anna Atkins’s subjects still beguile like some botanical dance.
It takes a special eye to stage a portrait “sitting” for kelp, and then lend to it the art of composition. The emerging science was of cyanotypes, or “photogenic drawing,” and Atkins turned the technique into a blueprint for pioneering success.
And almost from the immediate, Ms. Anna Atkins could make a dazzling first impression.
“The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Confera has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves,” Atkins, then an amateur botanist in her mid-40s, stated in 1843.
Two years earlier, William Harvey produced the unillustrated “Manual of British Algae.” Now, by using cutting-edge techniques of photographic capture, Atkins would publish her silhouette-effect artworks of aquatic organisms in “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.”
The result would become what’s widely considered to be the first entirely photographic book, as published by someone commonly regarded as the world’s first woman photographic artist.
Anna Children Atkins was born on this day in 1799, in Tonbridge, Kent, to a father who worked in a British Museum circle of scientists. John George Children’s Royal Society group included not only William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented the calotype photographic process, but also Herschel, the chemist-astronomer and photographic scientist who invented the precursor to blueprinting known as the cyanotype, by which chemically treated paper exposed to light could create a permanent impression.
By 1854, Atkins documented all the algae of the British Isles in her hundreds of photogrammic impressions. Fewer than 20 copies of her pioneering book are known to exist — with one copy still in the hands of Herschel’s descendants as recently as 1985.
Through her cyanotypes, Atkins — who died in Kent in 1871 — blended photographic aesthetics with scientific advances.
Today, to honor Anna Atkins’s true-blue botanic artistry, Google presents an aqua-tinted Doodle on its home page, on the 216th anniversary of her birth.
The professional impression she left lasts to this day.