Anna Atkins and Photography

Photography in most cases goes hand in hand with cameras. However, Anna Atkins opposed this concept by creating her botanical images through the use of cameraless photogenic technique of drawing to create her images.  Anna records botanical specimens that are vital in scientific referencing as evident in her book, British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. This book was one of the first publication to use light-sensitive materials. In other words, Anna embraced the use of cyanotype method as opposed to the traditional letterpress printing. Therefore, through research, the essay will look at Anna Atkins’ photography, and how accurate this art is in creating a scientific illustration.

In the study to understand how photography was communicated in the early years, the visit to the exhibition helped in the research. Various samples were collected from the collections of Anna Atkins and other photographers like William Talbot.  From the Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, it is evident to get the idea on the broader issues surrounding ecological as well as cultural conservation. Most of the photographers during this time struggled with different problems in creating art given that the process of developing pictures was slow and required dangerous chemicals. Despite the struggle where most of them opted to use cameras, these photographers furthermore focused on different aspects of life, unlike Anna who majored on plants. Anna Atkins employed a unique photographic technique of cyanotype. This is a technique that employs the use of two chemicals; potassium ferricyanide as well as ferric ammonium citrate. The two chemicals are brushed onto the paper and left to dry while in a dark place. The paper is then used as the surface, where a negative is printed on to create a photograph. Alternatively, like what Anna used to do, an object is exposed to sunlight allowing the chemicals to act as a water-insoluble dye, which through oxidation leads to the development of cyanotype.

Clarity of exposure in specimens was remarkably demonstrated by Atkins through technical skills that demonstrate composition. Each of Atkins composition was put down on paper that was printed by hand, in that dried algae were arranged close enough to produce a sharp but clear print with the specimen staying intact. This cyanotype technique employed by Atkins in her artworks is similar to daguerreotype which produced light sensitive media resulting from the use of reflected light and warmed fumes of mercury. Calotype, unlike cyanotype, embraced the use of cameras as well as iodizing a paper in silver nitrate and allowed to dry under low heat. Through the cyanotype technique, Atkins successfully made volumes of books with the purpose of sharing information on the classification of specimens.


With a passion for showing her love for vegetation, Atkins printed her books through the use of hands. She first cut pages by her hands and wrote the specimen names below each image. Atkins further wrote pages labeled, “ Table of Contents” starting with the names on a plain but transparent paper that acted as a negative to be printed on different pages. In other words, Atkins designed titles in her special way by embracing photographic printing. The letters were formed from delicate strands of possible seaweed.source ( Allison 2019)

Alariaesculenta photograph above was collected from part xii of the British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. The image of alariaesculenta was formed and appears as it is after the paper having been chemically treated and left in the sun to dry. The image dries and turns white as it appears while leaving the dark blue background.

source (Edwards 2015)

This image is from Atkins book of Cyanotypes. The image is developed clearly to show all the features of the plant to make it easy for classification. The image appears to have been originally mounted on the dried cyanotype paper and later unmounted to leave the features on the paper while the blueprint background taking the remaining space.

source (Allison 2019)

The image above ‘peacock’ is from Anna’s collection, “cyanotype” album presented to Henry Dixon in 1861. The image’s contents are the peacock feathers that have been drawn to show each feature.


Anna Atkins collection of pictures or in other words photograms is as a result of the beautiful process of cyanotype. Together with her friends like Anne Dixon, Atkins can create her collections, she ensures she publishes her books through her homemade materials. She ensures to keep a record of every specimen for easier reference as well as classification by other scientists. Unlike other photographers of her time like William Talbot who used a camera to create photos, Anna employs the cyanotype technique to record all the specimens as a botanist who had passion for vegetation


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