Rhapsodies in Blue Anna Atkins’ Cyanotypes
In an era when the Enlightenment’s orderly vision of the natural world began to unravel, Anna Atkins produced the world’s first photography book: a collection of cyanotypes, created across a decade beginning in 1843, that captured algal forms in startling blue-and-white silhouettes. Paige Hirschey situates Atkins’ efforts among her naturalist peers, discovering a form of illustration that, rather than exhibit an artist’s mastery over nature, allowed specimens to “illustrate” themselves.
December 6, 2023
In the preface to his 1844 book, The Pencil of Nature, English inventor Henry Fox Talbot described his “little work” as the “first attempt to publish a series of plates or pictures wholly executed by the new art of Photogenic Drawing.”1 Talbot had grandiose ambitions for the future of photography — a medium he had played a role in creating — but this experimentation was already well under way. He was not, as he claimed, the first person to publish a book of photographic prints. That distinction belongs to an amateur botanist named Anna Atkins.
Starting in the early 1840s, Atkins created hundreds of cyanotypes, a photographic process in which paper is treated with a chemical solution before being exposed to sunlight. When objects are left on the treated paper — British ocean plants, in Atkins’ case — over time they produce a white silhouette against an inky blue ground. Bound together, Atkins’ images served as an illustrated supplement to the phycologist William Henry Harvey’s Manual of British Algae (1841). This arrangement was typical at the time, when printing text and images in a single book would have been prohibitively expensive. Indeed, in this and many other ways, Atkins’ work assumed the standard conventions of botanical illustration, and were it not for her use of the novel medium, British Algae would have most likely been forgotten to history.
As it is, Atkins has become a posthumous celebrity, raised from obscurity in the 1980s by art historian Larry Schaaf as quite possibly the world’s first woman photographer.2 Today, her cyanotypes — of ferns as well as algae — are housed in the collections of some of the finest museums in the world and have come to be understood primarily as objets d’art, prized less for their scientific contributions than their artistic merit. Yet beyond their aesthetic innovations, these images convey something important about the understanding of the natural world at a time of scientific upheaval, even if this was not their creator’s explicit intent.
By her own admission, Anna Atkins (née Children) turned to the medium of cyanotypes because she felt they could best capture the minute details of the algal specimens that were the subject of her first photographic book.3 But by the time Atkins published British Algae, she had already demonstrated her affinity for botanical drawing. After her mother died in her infancy, Atkins was raised by her father, a chemist, mineralogist, and zoologist who gave her a scientific education that would have been uncommon for a woman at that time. Under his guidance, she took up drawing at a young age and illustrated a companion to his translation of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s Genera of Shells in 1823. Her prior achievements with hand-drawing naturally lead one to wonder why she would choose to turn to cyanotypes, a more costly and in many ways less practical medium, and there are potential insights to be found in the long evolution of scientific illustration as a genre.
Atkins’ illustrational and photographic work situated her within an artistic tradition that stretches back nearly two millennia, with conventions that have evolved over time to suit its users’ needs. Among the earliest iterations of botanical illustration were manuals or “herbals” that helped medical practitioners identify plants with therapeutic properties. In the 1600s, naturalists began documenting the exotic flora they encountered during exploratory trips to the Americas, Africa, and Asia, producing lavishly illustrated books for the homebound European scholar. But the so-called Golden Age of botanical illustration came later, coinciding with the height of the European Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. During this period, one of the primary aims of botanical illustrators was to contribute to the total understanding of the natural universe, a goal that was understood to be not just theoretically possible but actually achievable.
In the field of botany, one of the most prolific contributors to the Enlightenment project was Carl Linnaeus, who developed a standardized system for identifying and naming all manner of flora and fauna. His popularization of binomial nomenclature provided a globally uniform set of species names, while his taxonomy offered an orderly system whereby plants could be divided into genera based almost solely on the structure and number of their reproductive organs, discounting most other features. Linnaeus was handsomely rewarded for his contributions to the field. He was known in his time as the “Prince of Botanists” and was knighted by the King of Sweden in 1758, but this popularity can largely be attributed to the fact that his work reaffirmed the already popular notion that the universe was an orderly system just waiting to reveal its secrets to the keen minds capable of deciphering them.
By the time Atkins was working a century later, this orderly vision of the world had begun to unravel. A confluence of scientific discoveries — from more accurate theories about the age of the earth to the discovery of previously unknown organisms in the fossil record — had led many naturalists, even those who had previously believed in the fixity of species, to hypothesize that the plants and animals that lived in their time had not existed since the world’s beginning but had instead evolved from entirely different species through interactions with their environment.
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck put forward his theory on the “transmutation of species” as early as 1802.4 Thirty years later, Goethe proposed that “[t]he plant forms which surround us were not all created at some given point in time and then locked into the given form, [rather,] they have been given . . . a felicitous mobility and plasticity allowing them to grow and adapt themselves to many different conditions in many different places.”5 These whispers eventually culminated in Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, the product of more than two decades of agonizing research.
It is difficult to say just how much Atkins may have been influenced by these ideas. She was surely kept apprised of important discoveries by her father, who played an active role in multiple scientific societies until his death in 1852, but there is no written evidence to suggest that she was particularly invested in the evolutionary debates of the era. Even so, scientific data and how it is presented has always played a part in forming, challenging, or reinforcing its viewers’ understanding of the world, and for all their apparent adherence to tradition, Atkins’ cyanotypes offered a starkly different vision of nature than the one that predominated in her time.
The visual conventions of most nineteenth-century botanical illustration had helped uphold the idea that species were discrete, innate, and unchanging. Specimens were typically displayed alone on a white ground, devoid of environmental context. Although fidelity was paramount, artists would omit distracting imperfections from their drawings, and the final image was often the composite of multiple specimens, implying the existence of a platonic ideal. Sometimes the central subject was surrounded by additional views of the plant in various life stages, or in cross-section, if significant features were obscured in the primary drawing. These conventions suited the purposes of identifying and codifying plant species, but they also reflect a scientific approach that, to quote the ethnobiologist Scott Atran, “emerged by decontextualizing nature, by curiously tearing out water lilies from water so that they could be dried, measured, printed, and compared with other living forms detached from local ecology and most of the senses.”6
Upon initial examination, a similar charge could be made against Atkins, whose practice necessitated tearing her subjects from their environs and likewise presented them alone on the page, though in her case this was partly a limitation of her chosen medium. Indeed, it was not only the natural context that was concealed by the cyanotype process, the specimen's surface and texture too was lost to these startling, blue-and-white silhouettes.
Despite these limitations, one can’t help but see in Atkins’ images of algae and ferns the ghostly presence of their lost vegetal source, for the cyanotype necessarily preserves the vagaries of an individual specimen. Here the torn leaves and tangled roots, invariably captured by the photographic process, act as an affirmation of the materiality of their subject and help retain something of the amateur engagement with nature in which the plant is met on its own terms, never fully revealing itself to its human observer. Though not literally snapshots, her images capture their subjects at a particular moment in time, granting them an exceptional degree of authenticity when compared to traditional botanical illustration, whose practitioners were still largely involved in upholding a static and increasingly outdated vision of the world. By 1856, around the peak of Atkins’ career, Darwin would disparage his peers’ ongoing efforts to divide the earth’s biota into a set of fixed species as “trying to define the indefinable.”7
The evolutionist’s concerns dovetailed with a contemporaneous, albeit waning, strand of scientific inquiry, one that pushed back against the excesses of an increasingly strict positivism and saw the sensuous engagement with nature as a precondition for genuine understanding. This romantic approach to life science, what Goethe referred to as “tender empiricism”, prioritized the study of processes over organisms in isolation, and understood life to be mutually constituted, constantly changing form through its environmental interactions. As Amanda Jo Goldstein has argued, many of the naturalists and writers who subscribed to this school of thought, among them Goethe, Blake, Shelley, and Herder, put a premium on firsthand engagements with nature and aimed to capture their experiences in poetic modes that reflected their own capacity to affect and be affected by their objects of study.8
We can see a similar attitude displayed in Atkins’ cyanotypes. Rather than the artist choosing which parts of the plant to show or emphasize, her subject is put in a position to “draw” itself. Throughout her work, Atkins acts as an equal collaborator, arranging her specimens in desirable configurations but ultimately endowing each plant with the capacity to produce its own image. This authorial shift has important ramifications, not only for the study of Atkins’ work but for the understanding of the human relationship to the natural world at a time when the professionalization of science was still underway. While the Enlightenment vision of nature — and the illustrational conventions it produced — supported the idea that humans existed at the apex of a rigid hierarchy of being, Atkins’ cyanotypes, with all their individual imperfections, seem to hint at the existence of an underlying flux that could not be sufficiently captured by a fixed natural order.
In many ways these images are the product of a distinct historical moment — cyanotypes would not catch on as a viable replacement for botanical illustration — but modern science has legitimized a version of the worldview that Atkins’ images tacitly endorsed. Increasingly we are discovering that the maintenance of a livable biome relies upon vast webs of entanglement, yet still many of us cling to the nineteenth-century notion that we are somehow set apart from the natural world. We have developed tools that allow us to “see” everything from individual atoms to the origins of our solar system, but all of this knowledge has not stopped us from plunging headfirst into the earth’s sixth mass extinction. To understand Atkins’ cyanotypes as merely the relics of an outdated science or the fanciful experimentation of a budding artist is to disregard their most salient contribution. Her images demonstrate a way of knowing the world that is based in mutuality rather than domination. We discount such a lesson at our peril.
Paige Hirschey is an independent writer and critic specializing in the intersection of art, science, and technology. She holds a PhD in art history from the University of Toronto.
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