• Creator of the First Photo Book

    Kimberly Glassman

    The first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images and one of the first female photographers.

    Anna Atkins, née Children, was born in Tonbridge, Kent, England in 1799. Her mother died shortly after childbirth, so Atkins grew up very close to her father who was a renowned chemist, mineralogist, and zoologist. Unusual for women during this time, Atkins received a scientifically oriented education, probably at the behest of her father who saw her interest and potential. He was a highly respected scientist who was secretary of the Royal Society in 1826, and again between 1830-37, and held the then-unpopular opinion that a daughter could do whatever a son could. As her education progressed, by the time she reached her twenties, Atkins had made drawings for her father's translation of Jean-Baptiste de Monet Lamarck's “Genera of Shells” (1824). Once Atkins was introduced to her father's contacts, her work really took off.

    In 1825 she married John Pelly Atkins and moved to Halstead Place near Sevenoaks, Kent. The couple had no children and so Atkins continued her collecting and studies of botanical specimens without distraction or interruption. In 1839, after Atkins' father met William Henry Fox Talbot and heard of his new "photograms" invention (which led to the development of photo-made images), he wrote to Talbot: “my daughter and I shall set to work in good earnest ’till we completely succeed in practising your invaluable process”. That same year Atkins was elected as a member of the London Botanical Society. Soon after, in 1842, another famous photographer, by the name of Sir John Herschel, sent Atkins a copy of his paper describing his refinement of Talbot’s process, an invention he called the cyanotype. It is reported that Atkins had access to a camera as early as 1841 and although it is much debated as to whether it was Atkins or Constance Fox Talbot who was the first female photographer, Atkins was certainly one of the first women to experiment, implement, and popularise the use of early photography in the study of botany and the production of botanical publications.
    Trained initially as an English botanist, once Atkins had discovered photography as a means to document specimens, she would later use this new skill alongside her expertise in botany for her book, entitled “British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions”, which is considered the first photo book in history. Self-published in 1843, Atkins began this project shortly after her correspondence with Herschel two years previously. Atkins decided to use the cyanotype process further by printing her hand-written text and illustrations through the means of this photographic process, rather than using traditional letter pressing. Although privately published, with a limited number of copies, and with handwritten text, “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions” is considered today to be the first book illustrated with photographic images.

    Atkins went on to produce a total of three volumes of “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions” between 1843 and 1853. Today, however, only 17 versions of the books are known to still be in existence. In addition to “Photographs of British Algae”, Atkins published five fictional novels between 1852 and 1863, including “The Perils of Fashion, Murder will Out: a story of real life, and A Page from the Peerage”. During this time Atkins also collaborated with Anne Dixon (1799–1864) to produce at least three presentation albums of cyanotype photograms. Atkins retained the algae, ferns and other plants that she used in her work and, in 1865, she donated the entire collection to the British Museum. Atkins died at Halstead Place in 1871, at the age of 72.