The Story Behind: The First Photobook Ever Published


The year was 1843, when Anna Atkins, an English botanist, became the first person to publish a book (Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions) with photographs illustrating British Algae. As of today, there are only 17 known copies of the book available in the world. Her own scientific background, as well as the guidance that she received from two pioneers—William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented the calotype process, and John Herschel, an astronomer and inventor of the cyanotypes process, aided her in this endeavour.

After Atkins’ mother passed away in 1800, she became extremely close to her father, who was a Fellow at the Royal Society of London. During this period, she received her education in science, and also discovered her fascination for botany. A skilled illustrator by 1823, she made 256 precise drawings of shells for a book (Lamarck’s Genera of Shells by French naturalist, Jean-Baptiste de Monet Lamarck) that her father was translating.

After experimenting with the then existing photographic processes, Atkins realised the potential of the cyanotype process, especially in the documentation of the intricate details of flora. Thereafter, she went on to create over 400 cyanotypes. She coated the paper with a mixture of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, placed the specimen onto the paper, and secured it in place with a sheet of glass. She then exposed it to light for several minutes, and cleaned it with water to produce photograms.

Seeing the plates, her father instructed her to publish them in a book. The opportunity came in 1841, two years before she came out with her own book. The photograms were a part of William Harvey’s (Irish botanist) A Manual of British Algae. Later, between 1843–1853, her photographs were published in several other books.

When asked why she favoured the blueprint process, Atkins had said, “The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Confera, has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves, which I have much pleasure in offering to my botanical friends.”

After her father’s demise in 1852, she switched to creating photograms of ferns, with the help of her childhood friend Anne Dixon Austen. These were published in the Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns.

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: better photography, did you know, Story Behind the Picture, Photograms, Cyanotypes, Anna Atkins, January 2019, The First Photobook Ever Published, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, William Henry Fox Talbot