The Woman Who Made the World's First Photobook

Why Anna Atkins deserves her place in the pantheon of great photographers.

Anna Atkins, Alaria esculenta, 1848–49, from the book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
Courtesy The New York Public Library

Anna Atkins’s book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843–53) has long been, to photographers, a highlight of the New York Public Library collection, and perhaps even a subtle highlight of the city itself. As part of the library’s exhibition Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins, this exquisite book of nineteenth-century photograms, rarely on display, can be seen in person in all its delicate glory. Photographs of British Algae is now widely seen as the first photographically illustrated book, thanks to the scholarship of Larry Schaaf; an expanded reprint of his original Aperture catalog accompanies the exhibition.

Like other better-known British women photographers of the nineteenth century—Julia Margaret Cameron, for example—Atkins came from means, and started photography later in her life, in her early 40s. To create the approximately fourteen copies of British Algae, Atkins printed some six thousand cyanotype photogram exposures on hand-treated paper. The book was produced without the backing of a major enterprise or society, though a few works, some containing peacock feathers and ferns, are collaborations with Anne Dixon, a childhood friend, and Atkins apparently had the help of household staff.

Spread from Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1848–49
Courtesy The New York Public Library

The New York Public Library’s copy of British Algae originally belonged to John Hershel, the scientist-inventor of the cyanotype. Never bound, it consists of delicately hand-stitched folios each a dozen or so pages, like little zines meant to be assembled and bound by the owner. This vulnerable form—not hidden by the officious leather cover and spine—gives the viewer a more intimate glimpse of Atkins’ process: streaks of Prussian blue, hand-sewn bindings, and the watermarks by J. Whatman Turkey Mill, the venerable nineteenth-century art-paper maker, all add to its allure, and all might have been hidden by binding. A title page has little pieces of seaweed spelling out the words on the cover: “British Algae Vol. 1”—the strands slightly fuzzy, like electricity hit them.

Cyanotype blue, or Prussian blue, is durable and unfading as a medium, and appears very close now to how it must have looked to the wealthy friends and amateur scientist readers (including Talbot) who received gifts of the volumes. The algae photograms appear not just in silhouette but also with some gradations of blue showing the thickness of the strands of seaweed, giving a diaphanous floating quality to the prints. You can almost smell the seawater. The page layouts are beautiful—the relatively modest size of the paper sometimes seems too vast for a tiny centered sprig, while other tentacled strands have to be wrapped artfully to fit on the page. Latin text (always present) is sometimes tucked to one side, a reminder that these photograms are products of scientific inquiry, and even an unconscious colonial impulse, an endeavor to categorize and name seaweed and capture its unfathomable detail with photographic precision.

Anna Atkins, Grateloupia filicina, 1848–49, from the book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
Courtesy The New York Public Library

The lapidary exhibition in the NYPL’s tiny rare book gallery is dense with both illuminating objects and carefully chosen contextual details: for example that Atkins’s father, John George Children, was “Keeper of the Department of Natural History and Modern Curiosities” at the British Museum, and that Atkins had an herbarium with 1,500 examples of plants. The exhibition includes works such as Atkins’s early drawings of shells; the botanical illustrations of Elizabeth Blackwell (women, generally barred from academic art training, could instead illustrate plants); a mediocre watercolor by Atkins of Halstead Place (her home); and Mary Wyatt’s 1832 books on algae with actual specimens of marine plants somewhat comically flattened inside.

The larger question the show raises is this: We know that William Henry Fox Talbot aspired to create the first photographically illustrated book, The Pencil of Nature (1844–46)—but because of the laborious progress of that book’s production, the diligent Atkins beat him to it with her modest edition about seaweed. But why do we constantly cite Talbot as the first individual to create a photographically illustrated book (now adding the words “commercially available” for accuracy), and why has Atkins received so little credit on that front? What does it mean to succeed as the “first” in any medium or form?

Anna Atkins, Ulva latissima, 1848–49, from the book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
Courtesy The New York Public Library

A number of distinguished women have told me that it hardly matters who is “first”—as if “first” were merely a male ambition—and as if women have better things to do than worry about their place in these histories. Yet major histories of photography almost completely omitted Atkins until the 1990s. At various points her “A. A.” initials on the book were even said to stand for “Anonymous Amateur.”

Woman, only child, mother, and scientist, Anna Atkins has progressed in the public imagination from an “Anonymous Amateur” to a proper pioneer of photography. A photographer recently told me she took her children to see the show, telling them, “This is part of why Mom is a photographer.” The exhibition is spectacular, and you can’t help but wonder what else we don’t know and who else we aren’t crediting in our histories of the medium.

Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins is on view at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building through February 17, 2019.