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The Surprising Subject of the First Book of Photographs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In these hyperlinked days, one might reasonably guess that the subject of the first book of photographs may have been along the lines of the True Purpose of the Internet (ask someone who’s seen “Avenue Q” if you don’t know). Or if not that, perhaps cityscapes, or naval vessels, or still lifes, or battlefields. But no. The subject of the first book of photographs, published 1843, was algae.

Yes, algae. The filmy red/brown/green/golden stuff that washes up along many a beach and occasionally serves as the draperies of the underwater world. And not just any algae. British algae. I know. You can catch your breath now.

But what you may not realize is that algae are, in fact, quite beautiful, and never more so than when their diaphanous delights are on full display in a cyanotype, the type of photograph employed by Anna Atkins, the author of “Photographs of British Algae”. That’s right. Not only did the first book of photographs contain cyanotypes of algae, it was produced by a woman. Her book is part of a collection in the Royal Society, which has just put on an exhibit of some of its choicest works called “Treasures of the Royal Society Library”.

Anna Atkins was the daughter of John George Children, a scientist who worked in the British Museum’s Natural History Department. He taught her more about science that most girls could expect to learn in those days, and it seems to have sparked a life-long love in her. She and her father knew Sir John Herschel, the inventor of the cyanotype, and he, or someone who knew him, *cough*, exposed her to the new technique in about 1842 or 43.

Cyanotype is a photographic medium that uses ferric ammonium citrate, potassium ferricyanide, and simple sunlight to make an image. On exposure to ultraviolet light, the compounds react to form a dye called Prussian Blue, or ferric ferrocyanide. Ever wonder where cyanide got its name? This is it. Essentially, you put whatever you want to photograph on top of the paper. You expose it to the sun for 10-20 minutes. Then you rinse the paper in water to wash off the unreacted solution. Dry carefully. Art complete.

You can still make your own cyanotypes today, I believe, using kits like this one, which are often marketed to children as art projects. There is absolutely no reason they couldn’t be art projects for adults as well.

From what I can gather, Atkins simply took her collection of pressed, dried algae and cyanotyped them. Voila. The first book of photography. But what an inspired choice for the medium: because many algae are translucent to some degree, even when dried, her photographs of these life forms have a beautiful, ethereal elegance. With any object that is not translucent, the cyanotype process simply yields a sillhouette. With algae, or anything similarly thin, the cyanotype gives information about its thickness and translucency — to beautiful effect.

Treasures of the Royal Society Library contains at least 30 selections of real rare books from the library’s 350 years of collecting. [begin cheesy infomercial music]It’s a Greatest Hits of Science from 1504 on,  including works by  Albrecht Durer, Gailleo Galilei, Robert Boyle (“The Sceptical Chymist”), Robert Hooke (“Micrographia”), Isaac Newton (“Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica”), Charles Lyell (“Principles of Geology”), Charles Darwin (“On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”), and MANY more!! Act now — time is limited. This special exhibit ends June 21, 2012 .

It’s enough to make a girl wish plane tickets between DIA and Heathrow didn’t cost nearly four figures [ducks shoes being thrown by readers in the Southern Hemisphere].

In any case, if you live anywhere in the vicinity of the Greater Europe Area, you have no excuse not to visit the Royal Society exhibit in the next few months and pay homage to some of the pillars of science in their original printed form, including “Photographs of British Algae”, and a fascinating table of the causes of death for Londoners from the mid-1600s (“itch” and “frighted” were apparently ways to go back then). For the rest of us, here are a selection of scanned images of Atkins’s book at the British Library and the New York Public Library. Of those, this one and this one are among my favorites. Enjoy.

And on a personal note, Merry Christmas, Happy Yule/Kwaanza/Hannukah/Festivus, and Ex-Post Facto Joyous Solstice. There was a small bright spot in my life recently: one of my posts was selected for inclusion in next year’s published blog anthology “The Open Laboratory”, which you may have seen over at Jennifer Ouellette’s and Bora Zivkovic’s blogs. Yay! I’ll be a published author soon. That’s something to be thankful for.

Jennifer Frazer About the Author: Jennifer Frazer is a AAAS Science Journalism Award-winning science writer. She has degrees in biology, plant pathology/mycology, and science writing, and has spent many happy hours studying life in situ.
Nature Blog Network
Follow on Twitter @JenniferFrazer.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. kdimoff 11:23 am 12/23/2011

    i love cyanotypes. lola and i made some of clover and strawberry leaves last summer.

    congrats on being chosen for publication and happy everything to you!

    Link to this
  2. 2. History by mamc2501 - Pearltrees 7:59 pm 12/29/2011

    [...] The Surprising Subject of the First Book of Photographs | The Artful Amoeba, Scientific American Blo… Anna Atkins was the daughter of John George Children, a scientist who worked in the British Museum’s Natural History Department. He taught her more about science that most girls could expect to learn in those days, and it seems to have sparked a life-long love in her. She and her father knew Sir John Herschel, the inventor of the cyanotype, and he, or someone who knew him, *cough*, exposed her to the new technique in about 1842 or 43. Cyanotype is a photographic medium that uses ferric ammonium citrate, potassium ferricyanide, and simple sunlight to make an image. On exposure to ultraviolet light, the compounds react to form a dye called Prussian Blue, or ferric ferrocyanide. Ever wonder where cyanide got its name? [...]

    Link to this

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