Thursday, August 9, 2012

Anna Atkins, and the beauty of ferns and algae

I think I need a section on inspiring women.

I was looking up sun prints or cyanotypes,where you place objects on coated paper and expose them to light. It produces these gorgeous blue-tinted prints, very popular in magazines like Martha Stewart but no less gorgeous for the played-out-ness. Like deer antlers, I don't care how "over" they are as a design trend, I've had mine for years and won't give them up.

It turns out that the first photographer to utilize this process for reproducing organic forms was Anna Atkins (1799 - 1871 and born with the amazing maiden name of Anna Children), also recognized as the first female photographer, and the first creator of a book illustrated solely with photography.

In 1842 a friend of the Atkins family, Sir John Herschel, invented the cyanotype process for reproducing notes and diagrams, essentially inventing blueprints. Within a year Anna Atkins had adapted cyanotyping to creating these silhouetted prints showing botany in exquisite detail. She self-published a book on British Algae of her prints, all hand-lettered. She probably didn't know that a century later places like The Metropolitan Museum of Art would cherish this book and keep it in pristine white glove condition.

Just think. She saw a new process created for engineering and swiftly adapted it into an art form. She had the courage to self-publish. She was interested in science. She may not be a famous female historical figure that inspires millions of girls to become strong independent women, but she is part of a chain or cloud that is still necessary. There is a question of why in this day and age do we need to gush over strong women, shouldn't this be the era of unquestionable confidence already. But the fact is, we seek out role models who are our own gender for the most part and who reflect similar circumstances—and there are simply fewer women in history than men. We may be in a new era but history is all the older eras.

I can find the fact that she married, but not whether she had children. So many of the women I admire never procreated. This is interesting and disheartening. Did Anna Atkins have children? Did she teach them photography? Did she pass on her love of science? Did she have to give up her work for a while in order to raise them?

Thank you Anna, for appropriating one medium and applying it to another. For marrying science and art and design and your wonky hand-lettering. Thank you for your shades of blue.

Find out more on her Wikipedia page
Images from New York Public Library and Google Images

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