Some claim that Anna Atkins—born on this day in 1799, in Kent—was the first woman to take a photograph. Others that hers were the first photos ever printed in book form.
Atkins was a botanist, an artist, and an accomplished nature photographer. Her father was a scientist, and he encouraged his daughter’s early interest in botany. Both her father and her eventual husband, John Pelly Atkins, were friendly with the pioneering photographer and inventor William Henry Fox Talbot; it was probably Talbot who introduced her to the techniques she would come to use in her art.
In her books on British algae and her later work on plants and ferns, Atkins worked by contact-printing cyanotype photograms, and by “photogenic drawing,” the process by which light-sensitive paper is exposed to the sun.
Whether or not she was the first woman to take a photograph—some claim it was Talbot’s wife, Constance—her self-published 1844 book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions predates her mentor’s The Pencil of Nature (acknowledged to be the first commercially printed book illustrated with photos) by some months. Only seventeen copies of British Algae are known today, but luckily several are in excellent condition. The book is clearly a scientist’s tool—which is to say, not exactly light reading for the casual algae enthusiast—but it shows clearly Atkins’s seriousness as a scientist and the precision of her technique. That the images possess a ghostly beauty was presumably besides the point. By the time she died, at seventy-two (of “paralysis, rheumatism, and exhaustion”), Atkins had gained the respect of the scientific community. Her works were donated en masse to the British Museum.
If none of that leaves you sufficiently impressed, check out today’s Google Doodle—in honor of Atkins’s 216th birthday.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.