How 19th-Century Photographer Anna Atkins Changed the Way We Look at Science

Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state & in fruit, from Part
XI of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850, cyanotype
Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state & in fruit, from Part XI of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850, cyanotype
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

When Anna Atkins finished the first part of her book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, she signed the introduction “A.A.” Nowhere among the nearly 400 hand-printed images of the final collection does her full name appear. A scholar studying her work decades later assumed that the initials stood for “anonymous amateur.”

Atkins’s Photographs of British Algae, produced between 1843 and 1853, was the first book illustrated exclusively with photographs and the first application of photography to science—making Atkins the first known female photographer. Atkins worked in an early kind of photography called cyanotype, which she learned directly from its creator, the famous astronomer Sir John Herschel, at the moment of its invention. An avid botanist, she even collected many of the seaweed specimens herself. But, despite her place in history, comparatively little is known about her artistic and scientific ideas.

“We know she was a reticent person,” says Joshua Chuang, co-curator (with Larry J. Schaaf and Emily Walz), of “Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins,” a new exhibition opening October 19 at the New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwartzman Building. “Even though she spent a long time and a lot of energy and resources making these photographs, she did not seek recognition or fame.”

Anna Atkins, Furcellaria fastigiata, in Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Furcellaria fastigiata, from Part IV, version 2 of Photographs
of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
, 1846 or later, cyanotype
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Born in 1799 in Tonbridge, Kent, England, Anna was the only child of John George Children, a chemist and mineralogist, and later the keeper of zoology at the British Museum. Anna’s mother died a year after she was born. Anna and her father remained very close (his own mother had also died when he was an infant), and through him, Anna was introduced to the leading scientists and innovations at the turn of the 19th century.

In her first artistic undertaking, Anna assisted her father by hand-drawing more than 200 scientifically accurate illustrations for his translation of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s Genera of Shells, published in 1823. Anna’s marriage in 1825 to John Pelly Atkins, a wealthy West India merchant, gave her the time and freedom to pursue her passion for botany. She joined the Royal Botanical Society and collected seaweeds on her trips to English beaches; she also obtained specimens from botanical contacts around the world. By 1835, Children was enthusiastically promoting his daughter’s botanical collection and scientific interests to his colleagues, including William Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of negative-positive photography; and Sir John Herschel, the most famous scientist in England, who happened to be Children’s neighbor.

Herschel published a paper in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions describing his cyanotype process in 1842. The technique involved two iron-based compounds, ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, which were brushed onto regular paper and left in the dark to dry. Then, the photo negative or flat object to be photographed was placed over the paper and exposed to sunlight for several minutes. The paper was then washed in plain water. The combination of the iron compounds and water created a chemical reaction that produced Prussian blue pigment, revealing a deep blue permanent print with the item remaining the same color as the paper.

Anna Atkins, Halyseris polypodioides, in Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Halyseris polypodioides, from Part XII of Photographs of
British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
, 1849-1850, cyanotype
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Herschel taught Atkins his formula around 1842, and she began experimenting with the process then. Herschel's instructions gave her an advantage over other artists, Chuang tells Mental Floss. “There were DIY manuals, almost like cookbooks, for early photographers explaining how to mix the chemicals. But every one of these manuals mistranslated the cyanotype recipe, so no one was able to do it successfully. But because Atkins learned from the inventor himself, she was able to do it,” he says.

As Talbot and Herschel continued to develop their photographic methods, William Harvey, one of England’s most famous botanists, published A Manual of the British Marine Algae—without any illustrations. “All he had to distinguish one species from another, besides the different names, was a kind of visual description of what these things looked like, felt like, what the texture was,” Chuang says. “Atkins must have thought, ‘That’s insane, we have this new thing called photography—why don’t I use that to try to illustrate it?’”

At the time, books depicting botanical specimens were embellished with either hand-drawn impressions or actual specimens that had been dried, pressed, and glued to the pages. The first method was time-consuming and expensive; the results of the second were usually short-lived. “The cyanotype process would have appealed at once to Atkins,” Schaaf writes in his 1979 paper, “The First Photographically Printed and Illustrated Book.”

She recognized the potential of photography to improve scientific illustration in particular. “The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects so minute as many of the Algae and Confervae has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of cyanotype to obtain impressions of the plants themselves,” Atkins wrote in the introduction of Photographs of British Algae.

Atkins mixed the chemicals and prepared her own photosensitive paper. Some of the plates have tiny holes at the corners, suggesting that she pinned each plate to a board for drying. Her closest childhood friend and collaborator, Anne Dixon, shared Atkins’s zeal for collecting and photography and may have helped produced several of the later plates in Photographs of British Algae.

The work was published in parts, beginning in October 1843. Over the course of 10 years, Atkins regularly issued new plates as well as some replacement plates, an index, title pages, and handwritten assembly instructions to a selection of friends, botanical colleagues, and scientific institutions. Atkins intended the final three-volume collection to contain 14 pages of text and 389 plates measuring about 8 inches by 10 inches. Each recipient was responsible for adding the new plates and sewing them into the binding, which explains why the few existing copies of Photographs of British Algae are in different stages of completeness.

Portrait of Anna Atkins, ca. 1862
Unknown photographer, Portrait of Anna Atkins, ca. 1862, albumen print
Nurstead Court Archives

The book had little impact on the scientific world, though. William Harvey makes no mention of Atkins in subsequent editions of his book, which Atkins used as inspiration for hers. “They must have known each other or at least heard of each other,” Chuang says. “Harvey knew Herschel, and Herschel definitely would have told him about this project. But Harvey never mentions it.” A critic praised the book’s use of cyanotype for rendering delicate specimens, but within a few years, Photographs of British Algae and its anonymous author were forgotten.

Atkins continued to experiment with cyanotype, printing lace, feathers, ferns, and other botanical objects. But in the 1850s, botanists began using a more commercially viable printing process called nature printing, in which a specimen was pressed into a sheet of soft metal. The sheet could be inked and pressed onto paper, revealing previously unseen textures.

It wasn’t until 1889—18 years after Atkins’s death—that scholar William Lang, in a lecture about the cyanotype process before the Philosophical Society of Glasgow, identified Anna Atkins as the author of Photographs of British Algae.

Anna Atkins, Alaria esculenta, in Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Alaria esculenta, from Part XII of Photographs of British
Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
, 1849-1850, cyanotype
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

“The fact that her story and her work has survived is quite miraculous,” Chuang says. In the New York Public Library’s exhibition, its copy of Photographs of British Algae—which Atkins inscribed and gave to Herschel—will be on display, as well as new details about her life and the significance of her work.

“The book that she created is not only handmade, but there are no two copies that are alike,” Chuang adds. “It’s almost impossible to know what’s complete. And that’s true of what we know about her life; it’s a story that constantly in formation.”

Additional source: Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms by Anna Atkins

10 Illuminating Online Courses You Can Take in August

fizkes/iStock via Getty Images
fizkes/iStock via Getty Images

Back-to-school season isn't just for full-time students. August can be a great time to return to class for anyone with internet access and a hankering to learn something new. And in the age of online courses, your choices are no longer limited by classroom capacity, scheduling conflicts, or even tuition restrictions. Take a look below at the top 10 coolest course offerings for this month, from classes on mastering mindfulness to making macarons.

1. Hollywood: History, Industry, Art

Hollywood’s history is just as rich as its A-list actors. In this course presented by the University of Pennsylvania, you’ll learn about how the film industry evolved with technology and how it responded to American political crises throughout the 20th century. You’ll also study individual powerhouse studios like Paramount and Disney and legendary directors like George Lucas and Spike Lee.

Sign up on edX for free. The optional certificate costs $49.

2. Our Earth’s Future

If you’re not totally clear on what climate change means, and you feel like at this point it’s too late to ask, you’re not alone—and this course from the American Museum of Natural History is perfect for you. In it, you’ll hear from climatologists, anthropologists, Earth scientists, and others who will explain just how climate change affects us and our ways of life. By the end of the course, you’ll be able to summarize key principles, identify misconceptions, and be well-informed enough to partake in global and local discussions.

Sign up on Coursera for free. The optional certificate costs $49.

3. Photography Basics and Beyond: From Smartphone to DSLR Specialization

Learning how to snap a great photo is relevant to basically anybody with a smartphone and/or a social media account. That’s all you need for this course—a smartphone and an interest in understanding the fundamental principles of photography (though you can use an actual camera if you’d rather). Delve into composition, exposure, documentary elements, and more, and walk away after this class flaunting a final project of photographs you'll be eager to share on Instagram and beyond.

Sign up on Coursera for free with a seven-day trial. After that, access to the course is $49 per month.

4. Introduction to Classical Music

In this Yale course, you’ll learn about more than just the major players in classical music—you’ll also explore what music actually is, why it makes us feel such strong emotions, and how it’s made. You’ll waltz through an in-depth history of the evolution of classical music, which, of course, wasn’t always considered “classical.” By the end, you’ll have an extensive understanding of music that enriches your daily listening, be it Jonas Kaufmann or the Jonas Brothers.

Sign up on Coursera for free. The optional certificate costs $49.

5. De-Mystifying Mindfulness

In our fast-paced, uber-digital society, mindfulness has helped a lot of people stay grounded in the face of anxiety or stress, and it could probably help you, too. This free course will provide background on the psychology, philosophy, and politics of mindfulness, as well as teaching you the tools you need to harness its power to improve your own state of mind in a concrete, lasting way.

Sign up on Coursera for free. The optional certificate costs $30.

6. Miniature French Desserts: Macarons, Madeleines, and More

Even though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with bringing chocolate chip cookies to every bake sale and potluck dinner you attend for the rest of your life, at some point, you might want to steal the show with a melt-in-your-mouth macaron. In this course, former Le Cordon Bleu instructor Colette Christian will lead you through every intricate step of baking formidable French delicacies including macarons, madeleines, tartlets, and opera cakes.

Sign up on Bluprint for $40.

7. Natural Dog Nutrition and Well-Being

Pet obesity is a national issue, and it contributes to a whole horrible host of other health problems for our four-legged friends. Since dogs can’t learn the risks and make lifestyle changes on their own, it’s on us to help them. This course will teach you how to ensure that your beloved sidekick is getting all the nutrition they need to live a longer, happier life with you. Lesson highlights include: The Truth About Commercial Dog Food, Healthy Homemade Treats, Hidden Household Hazards, and Foods for Common Health Issues.

Sign up on Udemy for $38.

8. The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Cyber Security

Learning how cyber security professionals combat hacking attempts—and how hackers hack in the first place—is a great way not only to insulate yourself from hacks, but also to prevent yourself from living in fear that you might get hacked. This 4.5-star-rated course breaks down popular hacking attacks and forms of malware, and it also teaches you about protection technologies like antiviruses, firewalls, encryption, biometrics, authentication methods, and more.

Sign up on Udemy for $25.

9. The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture

Avengers: Endgame’s recent record-setting box office performance is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our cultural obsession with superheroes. The late Stan Lee hosts parts of this Smithsonian course in conjunction with other experts, tackling subjects like the inception of superheroes in 1938 and their World War II “Golden Age,” the near-shutdown of the comic book industry during the McCarthy Era, the genre’s ebb and flow over the decades, and so much more.

Sign up on edX for free. The optional certificate costs $50.

10. Hand Lettering for Beginners

Whether you’re hoping to become the go-to sign-maker for all future bridal and baby showers or just looking for a bona fide way to relieve stress, hand-lettering can be a rewarding and practical skill. In this course, instructor and designer Adam Vicarel will show you how to break down a complicated-looking finished piece into a set of simple steps, using materials you probably already have around your house.

Sign up on Bluprint for $40.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Turn Your Phone Into an Instant Camera With KODAK's New Handheld Printer

KODAK
KODAK

Instant cameras are all the rage, but when you're already carrying a high-end camera everywhere you go in the form of your smartphone, the idea of carrying around an extra gadget might seem like more work than it's worth. You don't have to choose between the convenience of your phone's camera and the fun of having a tangible memento. KODAK's new SMILE digital printer combines all the fun of using filters and image editing on your phone with the delight of having a printed copy of your photo.

Blue, green, black, red, and white KODAK SMILE printers printing photos
The KODAK SMILE line of instant digital printers
KODAK

The handheld Bluetooth printer—which is roughly the same size as KODAK's SMILE instant digital camera—lets you edit photos on your phone, then print your image instantly on 2-inch-by-3-inch sticker paper. Using the KODAK SMILE app, you can add Instagram-esque filters; rotate images and change contrast, brightness, and other characteristics; and add stickers, text, doodles, and borders.

Most uniquely, you can add augmented reality elements to your photos, so that when you (or someone else with the KODAK SMILE app) point the app at the physical print, the image is replaced by a short video clip. The effect is something like the moving photographs in Harry Potter—you can surprise your friends by asking them to view a photo through the app's AR function, then watch their delight as the still image begins to move.

The KODAK SMILE app
KODAK

KODAK sent Mental Floss both the SMILE instant camera and the SMILE printer to test, and while there's a lot of fun in snapping photos on an instant camera and accepting whatever weird flaws that photo might have (though you can do some light editing on the SMILE camera before printing), in our opinion, the breadth of image-editing features and convenience of being able to print photos you've already taken on your smartphone makes the digital printer the better option if you're trying to choose between the two.

This is especially true if you're going on vacation or trying to capture a night out on camera; it's just easier to whip out your phone rather than break out another camera, and it's easier to edit photos on your phone than to manipulate photos on the SMILE instant camera's small screen.

Blue, black, green, white, and red KODAK SMILE instant-print cameras
The KODAK SMILE line of instant-print digital cameras
KODAK

The SMILE printer is available on Amazon and Walmart for $100 and comes in five different colors: white, black, blue, green, and red. The SMILE instant-print digital camera is also $100 on Amazon and Walmart and is available in the same colors.

While the camera and the printer both come with a starter pack of sticker-backed ZINK photo paper, you can get 50 refill sheets for $24 when you run out.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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