Science Week: Anna Atkins

My inspiration for working with cyanotype alternative process photography by Jo Howell

Sun Garden and The Bluest of Blues, Books about Anna Atkins

I have mentioned before that one of my historical heroines is Anna Atkins. This is partly because I am obsessed with a process that she made famous, but also because she was a great female role model for breaking the glass ceiling of science.

For many years Anna Atkins beautiful handmade books were attributed to an Anonymous Amateur, because her works were initialed A.A.

Anna was most certainly not an anonymous amateur! She was a talented, diligent, and methodical scientist. She was born in 1799 which was not a great time to be a woman interested in anything intellectual. Women were actively dissuaded from seeking out education, and thought to be too silly to bring anything of interest to the table. Women in the early 1800’s were hysterical maniacs who could not be trusted with knowledge.

Obviously, the above statement is a sardonic over simplification of the state of society at the time, but you get my drift. So, against the odds our heroine Anna Atkins was educated by her father, and helped him with most of his scientific endeavours. Anna’s mother died when Anna was very young, so her father brought her up to the best of his ability. Outshining most dads of the day, he ensured that his daughter was well versed in the newest scientific developments.

In 1842 Sir John Herschel invented the cyanotype process, and through close relationships with him and William Fox Talbot, Anna was one of the first people to have access to these new technologies. Quite quickly she realised that these photographic processes could make her life of scientific observation so much more accurate, quicker to do, and easier to reproduce. Up until the invention of photography there were only labour intensive drawn illustrations or wood engravings to go with scientific texts.

Anna Atkins is attributed now with the creation of the first photographically illustrated book, and her work has been celebrated in new exhibitions across the world. A recent publication called Sun Gardens accompanied the New York exhibition of her work last year, and a brilliant book for children called The Bluest of Blues also came out last year, making our Anna so much more accessible to everyone!

For Science Week this year I taught groups of people at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens about the cyanotype process, and introduced them to Anna. This year marks approximately 10 years of working with the process myself. I’m still experimenting all the time. There are new ways to work with this compound, and I have only just scratched the surface after all this time.

My current project is about combining photography with the photogram technique and various masks that I have cut out of vintage magazines. The work straddles the border between photography and printmaking.

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