Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins at the New York Public Library

BY Diana McClure, January 2, 2019

Anna Atkins and Anne Dixon, Papaver rhoeas, from a presentation album to Henry Dixon, 1861. Private collection, courtesy Hans P. Kraus, Jr.


Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins, on view at the New York Public Library through February 17, 2019, is an impressive contribution to master narratives on the history of photography. Atkins was a groundbreaking innovator working at the intersection of photography and science and the creator of the first book to be illustrated with photographs. With this exhibition, she could finally receive widespread recognition for her use of the cyanotype process one year after its invention and her magnum opus, Photographs of British Algae, made in mid-1800s Victorian England.

In a compact, dimly lit room on the library’s main level, versions of the hand-sewn monograph, photographic plates, and memorabilia providing context and commentary are organized in a historical timeline on walls and in museum display cases. Anecdotes that range from the initial discovery of the initials A.A. on a copy of British Algaein the 1880s to the uncovering of a set of photographic plates in 1992 at Jardin des Plantes in Paris are bountiful. However, interspersed throughout the text-heavy presentation, the Prussian-blue background and delicate white veins found in Atkins’s plant-specimen cyanotypes are remarkably untainted by time. They offer a striking reprieve from the overwhelmingly cerebral nature of the exhibition.

Anna Atkins, Furcellaria fastigiata, from Part IV, version 2 of Photographs of British Algae, 1846 or later. Courtesy  New York Public Library

Atkins’s accomplishments are due in part to an amiable atmosphere for learning and opportunity made possible by her father. Despite the gender dynamics of the era, her artistic sensibility and scientific curiosity flourished. In 1823, her father asked her to illustrate a book he was translating, Genera of Shells, by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. The book, which includes 250 intricately detailed drawings of shell forms, is on view and reveals Atkins’s calling as an artist.

Knowledge of Atkins’s application of the cyanotype process has been circulating in the halls of academia and in the studios of contemporary artists for some time. A complementary group exhibition on the library’s third floor, Anna Atkins Refracted: Contemporary Works– including artists such as Meghann Riepenhoff, Mona Kuhn, and Letha Wilson, among others – testifies to this fact and firmly establishes her impact on the art-historical canon.