Anna Atkins died in 1871, but her story is only now being fully written, and it's no staid Victorian tale. Joshua Chuang speaks of her in an urgent whisper. Granted, he works in a library — as the New York Public Library's Miriam & Ira D. Wallach associate director for art, prints and photographs and as the Robert B. Menschel senior curator of photography — but he describes his research on the groundbreaking photographer with the gasps of wonder and discovery more commonly associated with suspense novels than academic scholarship. "This has been a detective game," he says, "and it's been thrilling."
Chuang has co-curated, with photo historian Larry J. Schaaf, the first major survey of Atkins' work ever assembled. "Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins" gathers five volumes of her hauntingly beautiful cyanotype studies of seaweed, together with letters, watercolors and other archival material.
When Chuang came to the library in 2016 and began familiarizing himself with its collections, he took a close look at its Atkins holdings. "I was blown away," he recalls. "I had to re-think everything I knew about photography's early years."
Atkins may not have been the very first female photographer, as once was claimed, but she was the first to have a sustained, significant practice using the new medium. Of even more consequence, she was the first maker of a photographically illustrated book. She issued the initial installment of "Photographs of British Algae" in 1843, months before William Henry Fox Talbot, one of photography's inventors, produced "The Pencil of Nature," long-lauded as the first photo book. Unlike Talbot's commercially driven enterprise, designed to promote the new imaging technology, Atkins made each of her publications individually, by hand, offering them to her "botanical friends," she wrote, out of the shared widespread enthusiasm at the time for gathering and classifying specimens.
"Atkins' main goal was to make something useful," Chuang says. "In Victorian England, botany was one of the few areas of science where women's contributions were tolerated."
Her father, John George Children, worked at the British Museum and was a member of the Royal Society —"like being a MacArthur Fellow," Chuang said. He raised his daughter alone after the death of his wife, encouraging her to collaborate on his scientific projects. She illustrated a book on seashells that he translated with more than 250 meticulous drawings.
Children presided over the meeting at which Talbot announced his invention in 1839 and wrote to him that he looked forward to replicating the process with his daughter, Anna. Whether any of those early photographs survived is still a mystery. The Children family was also close with John Herschel, who discovered the chemical means to permanently fix a photographic image. In 1842, the astronomer Chuang calls "the rock star scientist of his generation" introduced the cyanotype process, in which an iron salt solution is sponged or brushed onto paper to sensitize it. A negative can then be placed atop the dried paper and exposed to sunlight to create a print, or an object can be arranged on it to produce a photogram. Washing the paper with water fixes the image in tonalities of Prussian blue.
Atkins was an early adopter. Cyanotypy was not widely practiced until the 1880s, when it evolved into the blueprint, the standard method for reproducing architectural drawings.
A definitive reference book classifying British algae had been published in 1841, and Atkins set out to create a visual companion with "impressions of the plants themselves," she wrote, illustrations more accurate than was possible by pen or engraving. For each image, she placed a fragile, dried plant specimen atop a piece of treated paper, roughly 8 by 10 inches, securing contact with a pane of glass. The true-to-size silhouettes that result after exposure are spare but mesmerizing, delivering rich detail about each aquatic plant's texture, contour and translucency.
Atkins continued the work — amounting to roughly 400 images — for 10 years, issuing new installments in fascicle, or booklet form, roughly every six months. She distributed them by hand or by servant, to friends, friends of friends, libraries and institutions, complete with corrections, replacement pages and recommendations for binding the parts into complete volumes.
The New York Public Library’s copy was given to Herschel by Atkins herself and remains unbound, so everything, Chuang notes, is as Atkins sent it. "What makes some people tremble is that Herschel's DNA is all over it."
Atkins didn't seek payment for her work, or recognition — and attention incommensurate with her achievements is what she got. She signed the introduction to the first set of pictures only with her initials, leading one 19th-century scholar to designate her Anonymous Amateur, until more precise identification could be determined. Some accounts of the early decades of photography made vague, passing reference to the activities of "a lady." Some mis-attributed her work to Herschel. Some neglected it altogether. Not until well into the 20th century did Atkins' name appear in histories of photography.
"Sun Gardens," the first and only biography of Atkins, written by photo historian Schaaf, put her on the map when it appeared in 1985. Additional copies of Atkins' work were unearthed. By now, the number of known, extant volumes — no two alike — has doubled. A very few examples still exist in private hands, Chuang says. "I don't know how many copies of the Gutenberg Bible are known, but I'd bet you this is scarcer."
The library is re-issuing an expanded, updated edition of "Sun Gardens" in conjunction with the exhibition. It contains a wealth of new information about Atkins' life and methodologies, assembled one forensic clue at a time, by Chuang and Schaaf's scrutiny of the handwriting on the paper wrapper around the copy of “British Algae” delivered to Fox Talbot, for instance, or the watermark of the paper Atkins used.
"Every little bit that comes out adds a significant amount to her story, because there was so little to begin with," say Chuang. "There are more answers, but the book also raises more questions. It's full of clues that we hope like-minded, zealous researchers will pick up, get obsessed with and find answers to themselves. Our hope is that, in the course of the show and the attention to Atkins, more copies of her work will surface, more scraps."
The new scholarship will better define and assure Atkins' place in the historical canon, but ultimately, her work endures in the public imagination because it is so visually arresting, the deep and complex blues hinting of celestial as much as aquatic realms, and the specimens evoking all sorts of other life forms and substances, from bones to fur and smoke. A second, concurrent exhibition at the library attests to the work's continued relevance and influence, through photographs, books and digital media by 19 contemporary artists, including Letha Wilson, Penelope Umbrico, Liz Deschenes and Alison Rossiter.
Meghann Riepenhoff, based in San Francisco and Bainbridge Island, Washington, is represented by new cyanotypes as well as an earlier series, a direct homage, called "For Anna." For these intimate works, bound in an accordion-fold book, Riepenhoff placed algae when still wet onto sensitized paper.
"As it dries, it creates rings, or leaves salt," she says, "so it leaves impressions of when it was alive." Larger pieces made by immersion in the ocean also register the dynamic environment such plants are drawn from, the seafoam, wind and sand all leaving their mark. "Atkins was such an innovator," Riepenhoff says. "She changed the way people understood the world around us. Nearly 200 years later, her work is still riveting."
Artists in the show, both emerging and established, come from the U.S., Britain and Germany. "Some have a conceptual approach," says assistant curator of photography Elizabeth Cronin, who organized the presentation with Chuang. "Some relate to the idea of having a system of ordering and categorizing, and for them, Atkins' project is about an obsessive act of collecting, and making books. For others, the connection is with the transformational process — a cyanotype is still a photograph, but it changes how you see the object."
Most artists in the show are women. "There are more women who've responded to Atkins, and the show reflects that," Cronin says. "Women are more excited about other pioneering women."
Excitement about Atkins extends beyond the library, which is also producing, with Steidl, a pricey facsimile edition of the Herschel album. Abrams will be coming out with a children's book about Atkins early next year, and a novel based on her life was recently released in France. No word yet on the television miniseries.
"Blue Prints: The Pioneering Work of Anna Atkins"
When: Oct. 19- Feb. 17
"Anna Atkins Refracted: Contemporary Works"
When: Through Jan. 6
Where: New York Public Library, 476 5th Ave., New York City