The work of Anna Atkins, one of the earliest woman photographers, is the impetus behind two complementary exhibitions opened last fall at The New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Celebrating the 175th anniversary of the debut of her landmark book, Photographs of British Algae, the exhibitions examine Atkins’s life and work, as well as her ongoing legacy. Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins, the first full survey of Atkins’s major projects to be assembled, examines Atkins’s achievements, situating them within the context of her time; Anna Atkins Refracted: Contemporary Works testifies to the resonance of her photographs for artists today.
In contrast to the constraints experienced by women in Victorian England, Atkins conceived, printed, and published Photographs of British Algae, a groundbreaking achievement in the history of photography and book publishing. Carried out between 1843 and 1853, British Algae was the first book illustrated solely by the nascent medium of photography, and the first systematic application of photography to science. Each page of the seminal volume was hand-printed exclusively using the cyanotype, or blueprint, process. Nearly a century later, the timeless appeal of her cyanotypes-known for their deep blue color-was rediscovered by historians and artists who have recognized her contributions in the field of photography. Blue Prints explores Atkins’s training, her artistic and scientific pursuits, and her timely embrace of the new medium of photography. Featuring seldom-seen letters, artifacts from family and museum archives, and rare cyanotype volumes depicting various species of seaweeds, and later, ferns, flowering plants, and feathers—the exhibition also highlights the key roles played by Atkins’s scientist father as well as by Sir John Herschel and William Henry Fox Talbot, pivotal figures in the invention of photography, in cultivating her ambitions. Blue Prints includes items such as comparative copies of her book Photographs of British Algae, including Atkins’s presentation copy to Sir John Herschel, the inventor of the cyanotype process, the only three known portraits of Anna Atkins, a rare album of watercolors, a gift from Atkins to her husband and an album presented by Anne Dixon, a collaborator of Atkins’s, to her nephew Henry Dixon in 1861, the only cyanotype album known to depict subjects other than algae or ferns. In addition to the Library’s exhibition dedicated to the work of Atkins, the Schwarzman Building will also display recent photographs and video by current artists reflecting the spirit of Atkins’s cyanotype images, her methodical approach, and her preoccupation with nature. This exhibition includes pieces from the mid-1990s through the present by a diverse group of international artists, several of whom have created installations expressly for this exhibition. These contemporary works range from experimental cyanotypes and photograms to time-based digital media. Exhibited artists include: Roy Arden, Erica Baum, Eric William Carroll, Susan Derges, Liz Deschenes, Kathleen Herbert, Katherine Hubbard, Mona Kuhn, Owen Kydd, María Martínez-Cañas, Meghann Riepenhoff, Alison Rossiter, Ulf Saupe, Lindy Smith, Kunié Sugiura, Penelope Umbrico, Mike Ware, Letha Wilson, Ellen Ziegler 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’s Sun 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.