The First Photo-Illustrated Book, Anna Atkins’ Austerely Beautiful Photographs of British Algae (1843)

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Some of our favorite, and most pop­u­lar, posts at Open Cul­ture focus on book illus­tra­tion. From fine art to graph­ic design, from the sub­lime to the ridicu­lous to the pure­ly tech­ni­cal, the art used to visu­al­ize beloved works of lit­er­a­ture and sci­en­tif­ic texts cap­ti­vates us. Per­haps that’s in part because we encounter illus­tra­tion so rarely these days, what with the tri­umph of pho­tog­ra­phy and, now, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of dig­i­tal images, which are so easy to cre­ate and repro­duce that too few give suf­fi­cient con­sid­er­a­tion to aes­thet­ic essen­tials. Graph­ic nov­els and comics aside, the care­ful­ly hand-illus­trat­ed book or peri­od­i­cal has become some­thing of a nov­el­ty.

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But when we reach back to the mid-19th cen­tu­ry, it was pho­tog­ra­phy that was nov­el and graph­ic art the norm. So what was the sub­ject of the first book to use pho­to­graph­ic illus­tra­tion? Mon­u­ments? Land­scapes? Celebri­ties? No: algae.

Eng­lish botanist Anna Atkins—who is not only cred­it­ed as the first per­son to make a book illus­trat­ed with pho­tographs, but as the first woman to make a photograph—created her hand­made Pho­tographs of British Algae: Cyan­otype Impres­sions in 1843. And though the sub­ject may be less than thrilling, the images them­selves are aus­tere­ly beau­ti­ful.

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The sub­ti­tle of the book refers to the process Atkins used to make the images, a tech­nique devel­oped by Sir John Her­schel. “Ear­ly pho­tog­ra­phers,” writes Phil Edwards at Vox, “couldn’t eas­i­ly devel­op their pic­tures.” The tech­niques avail­able proved expen­sive, dan­ger­ous, and unsta­ble. “Her­schel came up with a solu­tion,” Edwards tells us, “using an iron pig­ment called ‘Pruss­ian Blue,’ he laid objects of pho­to­graph­ic neg­a­tives onto chem­i­cal­ly treat­ed paper, exposed them to sun­light for around 15 min­utes, and then washed the paper. The remain­ing image revealed pale blue objects on a dark blue back­ground.” The process, Jonathan Gibbs informs us at The Inde­pen­dent, “had pre­vi­ous­ly been used to repro­duce archi­tec­tur­al draw­ings and designs,” and is, in fact, the ori­gin of the word “blue­print.”

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Though “a capa­ble artist,” Edwards writes, Atkins real­ized that Herschel’s cyan­otypes “were a bet­ter way to cap­ture the intri­ca­cies of plant life and avoid the tedium—and error—involved with draw­ing.” British Algae, the BBC tells us, was Atkins’ “most valu­able work” as a nat­u­ral­ist. As the daugh­ter of a sci­en­tist and Roy­al Soci­ety Fel­low, Atkins had fre­quent con­tact with the most well-respect­ed sci­en­tists of the day, includ­ing Her­shel and pho­to­graph­ic pio­neer William Hen­ry Fox Tal­bot. Her “first con­tri­bu­tion to sci­ence was her engrav­ings of shells, used to illus­trate her father’s trans­la­tion of Lamarck’s Gen­era of Shells” in 1823. After­ward, she became inter­est­ed in botany, and algae in par­tic­u­lar, and in the emerg­ing tech­nol­o­gy of pho­tog­ra­phy as a means of pre­serv­ing her obser­va­tions.

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Pho­tographs of British Algae was cir­cu­lat­ed pri­vate­ly, and Atkins “stopped pro­duc­ing it short­ly after her father died, though she con­tin­ued to make oth­er cyan­otype vol­umes, such as Cyan­otypes of British and For­eign Flow­er­ing Plants and Ferns in 1854. The first com­mer­cial­ly pub­lished book to use the cyan­otype tech­nique was Fox Tal­bot’s The Pen­cil of Nature in 1844. Yet, though Atkins may not have been well-known out­side her small cir­cle, nor her pub­li­ca­tion “regard­ed as a sem­i­nal work in botany,” she has received posthu­mous acclaim, includ­ing per­haps the ulti­mate mark of fame, a Google Doo­dle, in March of 2015 on her 216th birth­day. You can view and down­load in high res­o­lu­tion all of Atkins’ pio­neer­ing pho­to­graph­ic book at the New York Pub­lic Library’s exten­sive online archive — the same archive we fea­tured here yes­ter­day.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

The New York Pub­lic Library Lets You Down­load 180,000 Images in High Res­o­lu­tion: His­toric Pho­tographs, Maps, Let­ters & More

See the First Known Pho­to­graph Ever Tak­en (1826)

Old Book Illus­tra­tions: Free Archive Lets You Down­load Beau­ti­ful Images From the Gold­en Age of Book Illus­tra­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Michael Gray says:

    The above arti­cle con­tains some basic mis­takes which do not do jus­tice to either Anna Atkins or WHF Tal­bot. To state that ‘The first com­mer­cial­ly pub­lished book to use the cyan­otype tech­nique was Fox Talbot’s The Pen­cil of Nature in 1844’ is Incor­rect.

    All the illus­tra­tions in his work where made using sil­ver salts, from calo­type paper neg­a­tives and calo­type con­tact paper neg­a­tives.; includ­ing Leaf of a Plant, Copy of a Lith­o­graph­ic Print, Lace and Hagar in the Desert. How­ev­er, for these par­tic­u­lar exam­ples due to the quan­ti­ty required it became nec­es­sary to make inter­pos­i­tive images and sur­ro­gate calo­type neg­a­tives. In par­tic­u­lar, del­i­cate spec­i­mens, ie., Leaf of a Plant and Lace would have degrad­ed after only a few impres­sion had been made. all the remain­ing images were made by the neg­a­tive-pos­i­tive process.

    Anna’s images were not made using a cam­era (or cam­era obscu­ra). They were made by con­tact with orig­i­nal objects (spec­i­mens) or in this instance fronds of sea­weed. It did not involve these of any form of opti­cal device. All were made in a print­ing frame, by con­tact, with the orig­i­nal object form­ing a “shad­ow” image show­ing some inter­nal halftones detail due to the trans­paren­cy of the the orig­i­nal object. WHF Tal­bot’s images were formed by an entire­ly dif­fer­ent process based upon the salts of sil­ver, first­ly in 1833 (yes that ear­ly see his ‘note­book L’) now part of the British Library Tal­bot Col­lec­tion. The ear­li­est known pub­li­ca­tion illus­trat­ed with pho­to­graph­ic images, between 1844 and 1846 was his work “The Pen­cil of Nature”. Anna’s cyan­otype images are of course an extra­or­di­nary sur­vival and a tour de force but they are not ‘pho­tographs’ in the strict sense of the word but ‘pho­tograms’. I know, a minor dis­tinc­tion, which how­ev­er places her at the point of ori­gin of dis­tinc­tive tra­di­tion

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