Widely believed to be the first woman photographer, Anna Children Atkins was born on March 16, 1799 in Kent, England, the only child of scientist John George Children and his wife Hester Anne Holwell. Following her mother's death in 1800, Miss Children spent much of her childhood at her father's side, assisting him with his research. This is likely the origins of her later photographic experimentation. Dr. Children was a Fellow and Secretary of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge as well as Vice President of the Botanical Society of London. Miss Children combined her lifelong interest in plants with her scientific curiosity, and in 1823, she composed 256 drawings for her father's translation of Lamarck's Genera of Shells.
After her marriage to John Pelly Atkins in 1825, Mrs. Atkins became a passionate student of the science of photography, which was exploding in the late 1830s and early 1840s with Louis Daguerre's invention of the daguerreotype, William Henry Fox Talbot's invention of the calotype, and Sir John Herschel's cyanotype technique. She applied these methods to her drawings, which gave them a unique photographic quality. She explored Herschel's process in British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, which is believed to be the first book with photographic illustrations. In September 1841, Mr. Talbot sent Dr. Children a package of calotype photographs, and Mrs. Atkins used her father's newly purchased Andrew Ross camera to create her own calotype prints. Sadly, none of these prints remains in existence.
Mrs. Atkins soon discovered she much preferred Mr. Herschel's less arduous cyanotype process to the labor-intensive calotype. This technique enabled her to place the objects she wished to photograph directly onto the light-sensitive paper and then expose to sunlight. She believed the cyanotype offered a much more permanent and therefore superior photographic reproduction. By coating her paper with a mix of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, which she then exposed to sunlight after drying. She would then use her botanical samples as negatives that produced photograms of white images against a blue background. These early blueprints were particularly effective in reproducing images of delicate marine plants and allowed Mrs. Atkins to make multiple prints.
Over the next decade, Mrs. Atkins used the cyanotype process to inventory several types of unique aquatic plant specimens. She worked closely with her father in the laboratory, but conducted her photographic experiments independently. After Dr. Children's death in 1852, Mrs. Atkins began collaborating with her friend Anne Dixon. Together, they produced cyanotypes of several types of algae and ferns, which are featured in the volumes British and Foreign Ferns and British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns. In 1865, Mrs. Atkins donated her botanical collection to the British Museum. Mrs. Dixon died in 1864, and Anna Children Atkins died seven years' later, on June 9, 1871. Her cyanotypes are currently being exhibited throughout the world at such locations as London's Royal Society, Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
2008 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 93-94.
2001 International Women in Science: A Biographical Dictionary to 1950 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc.), p. 10.
1861 Portrait of Anna Atkins, albumen print from RPS Yorkshire in Wikipeida Commons Public Domain
2004 Photographers of Genius at the Getty (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust), pp. 24-25.
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera