Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins
Sun Gardens: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 237 pp., $50.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
Photography was invented in slow motion, over multiple decades, by a number of people working mostly independently and in many different forms. Thomas Wedgwood captured camera obscura images on chemically treated surfaces in 1802, although they darkened entirely when exposed to light. Nicéphore Niépce accomplished something similar in 1816, and about ten years later succeeded in photographing the view outside his window on a bitumen-coated pewter plate—the earliest surviving photograph. William Henry Fox Talbot made permanent photographs on salted paper as early as 1835, although he didn’t make his invention public until 1839; claims have been made for an even earlier success with paper photographs by Hippolyte Bayard.
By that time Louis Daguerre (who in 1829 had partnered with Niépce, who died in 1833) had announced his success in preserving images on a silver-plated copper sheet and further discovered that a latent image, initially invisible, could be chemically developed, drastically reducing exposure times. Daguerre’s process resulted in eerie, crystalline images of remarkable depth that could be viewed only at particular angles and in particular light conditions, and could not be reproduced. Fox Talbot’s smudgily evocative calotypes—a further evolution of his salted paper method that used silver iodide—seemingly more ephemeral, pointed the way to the future, although the terrain was still contested through the first decade of photography’s flowering.
In 1839 the English polymath John Herschel coined the term “photography” and discovered that hyposulphite of soda, or “hypo,” could be used as a medium for fixing photographic images permanently. In 1842 he invented the cyanotype process, a low-cost printing method that produced blue images as a result of a reaction of iron salts. This beautiful if relatively unstable process endured as a minority choice in photography until the early twentieth century; it lasted somewhat longer as a means for making architectural blueprints, and a few contemporary artists still use it today.
Very soon after Herschel’s invention, his friend Anna Atkins (1799–1871) began to use the cyanotype process for making photograms of algae, placing the vegetation directly on the cyanotype paper, under a sheet of glass, and exposing it to light. Atkins was using a camera by 1841 and may have been the first female photographer (unless that title belongs to Constance Fox Talbot, but no photographs made with a camera by either of them have survived). She certainly made the very first photographically illustrated book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the first volume of which she issued in 1843, a year before William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature. She selected the specimens…
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