Anna Atkins Cyanotypes at NYPL

By Peggy Roalf   Friday January 4, 2019

Anna Atkins (1799–1871) came of age in Victorian England, a fertile environment for learning and discovery. Guided by her father, a prominent scientist, Atkins was inspired to take up photography, and in 1843 began making cyanotypes—a photographic process invented just the year before—in an effort to visualize and distribute information about her collection of seaweeds. With great daring, creativity, and technical skill, she produced Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the first book to be illustrated with photographs, and the first substantial application of photography to science. Above Left:Atkins’s “Dictyota dichotoma,” in the young state and in fruit, from Part XI of “Photographs of British Algae” 1849-50. Right: “Furcellaria fastigiata,” from Part IV, version 2 of “Photographs of British Algae,” 1846 or later. Both, courtesy The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Currently on view at the New York Public Library is Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins. This exhibition draws upon more than a decade of careful research and places Atkins and her much-admired work in context, shedding new light on her productions and showcasing the distinctive beauty of the cyanotype process, which is still used by artists today. In addition to the prints, Atkins’s collection of botanical specimens from the sea, along with her highly detailed drawings, brings her passion for collecting and documenting these exceptionally beautiful ocean flowers to life.

Left: Alaria esculenta” (1849-50). Right: “Papaver rhoeas” (1861), and CourtesyHans P. Kraus Jr., New York (bottom left); The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

At the time, the accurate documentation of botanical specimens from the sea held great fascination for the layperson as well as the scientist. Collecting botanical specimens was a popular pastime for British women who were interested in natural history. Also typical of the times, books such as Atkins were published in serial installments. The exhibition presents these rarities just as they came from their author’s hands.

A view of “Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins” at the main branch of the New York Public Library. Courtesy the New York Public Library.

The highly cerebral and text-heavy exhibition is accompanied by a second show of contemporary works, Anna Atkins Refracted. Installed in the third floor hallway galleries are works by 19 contemporary artists, including Meghann Riepenhoff, Mona Kuhn, Liz Duchenes and Letha Wilson, whose respective practices attest to the wide reach and generative nature of Atkins’s continuing legacy.

Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins continues through February 17th. Anna Atkins Refracted: Contemporary Workscloses Sunday, January 6th. New York Public Library, Stepen A. Schwarzman Building, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, NY, NY Info

Blue Prints is co-organized by Joshua Chuang, The Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Associate Director for Art, Prints and Photographs, and The Robert B. Menschel Senior Curator of Photography and Larry J. Schaaf, independent scholar, with Emily Walz, Librarian, Art and Architecture.

Coinciding with these exhibitions, the Library will be publishing two books that attest to Atkins’s photographic achievements. One is an expanded edition of Larry J. Schaaf’sSun Gardens, an in-depth study of Atkins’s work that first established her historical and artistic significance. The other is a facsimile of the Library’s copy of Photographs of British Algae, which is being produced by Steidl Verlag.
Additionally, the NYPL Photographs and Prints Collection includes nearly 400 pages from Atkins’ groundbreaking series of books, which can be seen here. And there are still a few cyanotype workshops at branch libraries; infoAdditional readings here CV19.BOOK.PHOTO CV19.EX.PHOTO




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