Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was possibly the very first woman photographer and almost certainly the first person to publish a book with photographic illustrations. But far more important is the fact that her work is extraordinary and remains amazingly fresh to this day, as I recently discovered at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Anna was fortunate that she was acquainted with photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot, and it was through him that she discovered his “photogenic drawing” technique. This involved placing an object on light-sensitized paper, which was then exposed to the sun to produce an image. It also led to the invention of the cyanotype photogram, a technique that Anna adopted for making thousands of prints of botanical specimens. In 1843, she self-published this work in the initial installment of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, which is generally considered the first book to be illustrated with photographic images.
First woman photographer?
Some sources claim that Atkins was the first female photographer and it is certain that she had access to a camera by 1841. However, others argue that it was Constance Talbot, Fox Talbot’s wife. As no camera-based photographs by either Anna Atkins or Constance Talbot have survived, we will probably never know.
A cyanotype photogram is a photograph made without a camera by placing objects onto specially treated paper, which results in blue prints. The process uses two chemicals: ammonium iron(III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide.