In 1843, British botanist Anna Atkins made history.
When experimenting with photography, Atkins didn’t go for images of landscapes or pictures of pretty flowers. Instead, the amateur botanist created the first book produced entirely of photographic works, titled “Photographs of British Algae.”
The New York Public Library system bought a copy of the 175-year-old work and recently released its images into the public domain.
Here’s the story of how the first book ever produced using photographic work came to be only photos of algae.
In 1843, Anna Atkins loved botany, especially scientific illustrations. Two years earlier, William Harvey had released the pioneering 'Manual of British Algae' but the entire text lacked photographs of what the algae actually looked like. Atkins got the idea to make her book, 'Photographs of British Algae' as a companion piece to Harvey's.
Atkin's father, John George Children, was a scientist. Within his circle of friends, William Henry Talbot and John Herschel were experimenting with photography. While Talbot was working on a process that would turn the image on the paper dark, like the traditional old photography, Herschel invented a process called cyanotyping. The process was cheap, and it took off among artists and architect to become 'blueprinting.'
'The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Confera, has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel's beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves,' wrote Atkins.
The botanist would use Talbot's technique of placing the plants between glass to handle them more easily. Then Atkins would use the blueprinting method, even for pages like the introduction, to create her book.
Instead of drawing the plants, Atkins' book for the first time showed what they actually looked like, thanks to photography.Atkins produced 13 copies of her first volume and gave this version to Herschel, the inventor of the blueprint process.
Atkins would continue producing more volumes of photos of British algae, but her first was the one to make history.
Eight months after Atkin's published her volumes, Talbot published 'The Pencil of Nature', which is considered to be the first photo book commercially published.
While Atkins holds the claim of first photo book ever created, it's contested whether she or Talbot's wife was the first female photographer. Atkins did own a camera, but this cyanotype process creates 'photograms', or cameraless photography.
Since no early photographs remain from Mrs. Talbot or Atkins, researchers are split on who is the first female photographer in history.
Either way, Atkins achieved fame for her being the first to create a book out of photographic work, and her process inspired future generations of scientists to pair photography with their publications. In March 2015, Google honored Atkins with a Google Doodle on the anniversary of her 216th birthday.
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