Anna Atkins

Atkins was recognised as “the first woman photographer” Johnson (2004:26), publishing the first photographically illustrated book in 1843 ‘Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions” (Schaaf 2018). The cyanotype process was invented by Sir John Herschel from whom Atkins learned the process on visits to his household (Ware 2018).

“Atkins’s achievements, like those of many Victorian women, were largely forgotten after death in 1871 and remained unknown for years” (Liberty 2018). Her work has been classified by some as photographic prints not as photography (Warner 2018). This perhaps refers to definitions of photography that “essentialize reproducibility and repetition” Hornby (2006:88).

It is only relatively recently that Atkins has been recognised for her achievements with the first museum exhibition of her work being held in 1988 (Schaaf 2018).

Much of the more recent recognition of Atkins’ work comes not from the scientific achievements but from acknowledgement of the aesthetic quality of her work. Friedewald (2018) notes that as well as her interest in botany she was also a talented artist. Batchen (2016) and Rosenblum (1994) comment on the placement or composition of her images while Naef (2004) discusses the combination of natural designs and strong colour in her work. These elements seem to transcend the scientific nature of Atkins’ original intent, her images have “an elegance of placement and form that belies the supposed cool objectivity of their presentation” Sandback (1997:28).

Photographs of British Algae’ contained over 400 individual cyanotype prints and over 13 copies of the book (each page of which will have been individually prepared), although some of the copies have fewer pages (Isenogle 2019). Atkins produced further collections ‘Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns’ in 1853 and ‘Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns’ in 1854. Combining the various collections shows that Atkins produced thousands of cyanotypes over her life.

Studying the work of Anna Atkins and her eventual recognition for the aesthetic qualities of her images, I am struck by the parallels with Karl Blossfeldt and ‘Art Forms in Nature’ which I studied in Part 1 of this course. In both cases work produced for educational or scientific purposes has, later, been acclaimed for its aesthetic appeal. As with Blossfeldt, Atkins’ work has been applauded for its form and composition.

Having studied Atkins’ work, I made my own cyanotypes trying, through selection and composition, to consider the aesthetic appeal of the final image.

In early attempts I tried using quite thick specimens without compressing them, the end result was that the shadows also had an effect on the final image, making these pansies unrecognisable and the snowdrops very fuzzy


 I then used glass plates to keep the specimens in place and generally chose much thinner specimens, keeping closer to the style of Anna Atkins

After this I tried some thicker specimens, again covered with glass to stop them moving in the wind and to minimise shadows.

In the Research Module I am studying alongside this Body of Work, I have been researching Japanese art, particularly woodblock prints. One style of print is known as Aizuri-e, literally meaning ‘blue print’’ it was a form of Japanese woodblock print that came into widespread use in the mid-19th century (Blaine s.d.). It developed from the wider availability of “Prussian Blue” (or German Blue) ink in Japan at that time. This was a much richer, more intense blue than had been available up to that time. Artists took advantage of the intensity of colour to produce monochrome woodblock prints:

"Peonies", Kesai Eisen, 1830s, 22.9x36.8cm, woodblock print, RISD Museum

"Black" bamboo, Utagawa Kunisato, 1858, 24.1x17cm, woodblock print, RISD Museum


Chrysanthemum Tanzaku print, Unknown Shin-hanga artist, woodblock print, 23.5x6cm

I was taken by the affinities between Aizuri-e prints and the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins and others that I had been studying. The common factor being the use of Prussian Blue although the method of production between Japanese Aizuri-e and Western Cyanotypes are very different. The affinities are particularly true in the work of people like Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow was an influential art teacher in the US, he studied Japanese art and “is known for pioneering theories of art and art education that he attributed to Japanese elements and principles of art and design” (Williams 2013:104).

Dow considered that the Eastern aesthetic could be divided into three elements “line, which includes spacing, rhythm and proportion; color or the quality of light; and notan, a Japanese word describing the quantity of light, tonal differences, and the values and gradations that create harmony” (Green 1991:10). He took up photography at the beginning of his career and, as with many others at the time, used the Cyanotype process “Many photographers relegated this blueprint process to trial or proof prints, but Dow had the imagination to feature it” (Michaels 1999:85)

Dow produced a book on composition (Dow 1914) which included a chapter on flowers. He considered that  it

“is essential that the space should be cut by the main lines (Subordination). A small spray in the middle of a big oblong, or disconnected groups of flowers, cannot be called compositions all the lines and areas must be related one to another by connections and placings, so as to form a beautiful whole. Not a picture of a flower is sought,—that can be left to the botanist—but rather an irregular pattern of lines and spaces, something far beyond the mere drawing of of a flower from nature, and laying an oblong over it, or vice versa. ” (Dow 1914:63)

His cyanotype of a Lotus bud illustrates his style.

“Lotus, One of Our Flowers”, Arthur Wesley Dow, c1900, Photograph, cyanotype, 20.3x12.7 cm

I tried a few cyanotypes with a more Japanese Aizuri-e style. Simply placing the flower on to the treated Cyanotype paper would not give the level of detail that is available in the Aizuir-e. I photographed the flowers and printed them, as a negative,  on to an acetate sheet and placed this over the treated cyanotype paper before exposing the sheet. The image of the Iris has been framed in the Tanzaku style, a narrow vertical format which often has printed verse or space to write a poem. All of the other images have been framed to Oban format, the most common print size at 10″ x 15″ or 25 x 38 cm.


Larger versions of all my images can be seen in my gallery.

While researching Atkins’ cyanotypes I came across a book on cameraless techniques (Barnes et al 2018) and read about the work of Barbara and Zafer Baran. I made my own images in this way and combined them with ‘found’ poetry in the style of the Japanese Surimono. – see my separate blog entry here.   

I also came across the work of Betty Hahn, a photographer who has used Cyanotypes and Van Dyke prints in producing her series ‘Cut Flowers’ and flowers also feature in ‘20 x 24 polaroids‘ also . I intend to spend more time investigating her work and perhaps produce my own responses to it.









Barnes, M. et al. (2018) Cameraless Photography. London: Thames & Hudson (V&A photography library)

Batchen, G. (2016) Emanations: The art of the cameraless photograph. Munich: Prestel Verlag.

Blaine, I. S. (s.d.) The Blue Era. At: (Accessed 03/03/2020).

Dow, A. W. (1914) Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. At:

Friedewald, B. (2018) Women Photographers: From Julia Margaret Cameron to Cindy Sherman. Munich:London: Prestel.

Green, N. E. (1991) Arthur Wesley Dow and his Influence. New York: Cornell University.

Hornby, L. E. J. (2006) ‘The Cameraless Optic: Anna Atkins and Virginia Woolf’ In: English language notes 44 (2) pp.87–100.

Isenogle, M. R. (2019) Anna Atkins: Catalyst of Modern Photography Through the First Photobook. [MA] Graduate College of Bowling Green State University. At:!etd.send_file?accession=bgsu1522796885194359&disposition=inline

Johnson, B. (2004) Photography speaks: 150 photographers on their art. New York: Aperture Foundation.

Liberty, M. (2018) Anna Atkins & Photography’s Blue Beginnings. At: (Accessed 02/03/2020).

Michaels, B. L. (1999) ‘Arthur Wesley Dow and Photography’ In: Green, N.E. et al. (eds.) Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922): His Art and His Influence. New York: Spanierman Gallery, LLC. pp.85–91.

Naef, W. (2004) Photographers of Genius at the Getty. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.

Rosenblum, N. (1994) A history of women photographers. Paris: Abbeville Press.

Sandback, A. B. (1997) ‘Endeavor of Like Spirits: Anna Atkins & Judy Pfaff’ In: On Paper 1 (5) pp.28–29.

Schaaf, L. (2018) ‘Pleasurable Offerings to Botanical Friends’ In: Chuang, J. (ed.) Sun Gardens – Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins. New York: New York Public Library. pp.37–89.

Ware, M. (2018) ‘On the Origins, Care, and Feeding of Cyanotypes’ In: Chuang, J. (ed.) Sun Gardens – Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins. New York: New York Public Library. pp.193–201.

Warner, M. (2018) Anna Atkins. At: (Accessed 02/03/2020).

Whittern, J. (2000) ‘Who was… Anna Atkins?’ In: Biologist : journal of the Institute of Biology. 47 (3) pp.129–130.

Williams, B. L. (2013) ‘Japanese Aesthetic Influences on Early 20th-Century Art Education: Arthur Wesley Dow and Ernest Fenollosa’ In: Visual Arts Research 39 (2) pp.104–115.