Anna Atkins (1799 – 1871) was an English botanist and photographer noted for her early use of photography for scientific purposes.
In her early 20s, Atkins made drawings for her father’s translation of Jean-Baptiste de Monet Lamarck’s Genera of Shells (1823), but her prime interest lay in the study of botany. She married John Pelly Atkins in 1825. Through her father’s association with Royal Society members William Henry Fox Talbot and the astronomer and chemist Sir John Herschel, Atkins learned of the photographic process then being invented. In particular, she was interested in the cyanotype process devised by Herschel in 1842, which can produce an image by what is commonly called sun-printing. The substance to be recorded is laid on paper impregnated with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. When exposed to sunlight and then washed in plain water the uncovered areas of the paper turn a rich deep blue. Eventually this process, known as blueprinting, was used mainly to reproduce architectural and engineering drawings.
Atkins employed cyanotype to record all the specimens of algae found in the British Isles. The first part of her work, entitled British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, appeared in 1843; by 1850 she had produced 12 additional parts. During the next three years, Atkins completed the publication with 389 captioned photograms and several pages of text, of which a dozen copies are known. In 1854, Atkins, possibly collaborating with her friend Anne Dixon, produced an album entitled Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns. Despite the simplicity of her means, Atkins’s project was the first sustained effort to demonstrate that the medium of photography could be both scientifically useful and aesthetically pleasing.