by Allegra Baggio Corradi
Nineteenth-century Britain was a hotbed of biological enthusiasm. Households became filled with stuffed animals and birds. So-called “gentlemen scientists” traveled the world drawing, describing, collecting and cataloguing plants and animals. As railway networks grew bigger, labour advances led to an increased leisure time, and ordinary citizens got in on the trend. Microscopes became affordable and collecting clubs multiplied across the country. The craze was cross-class and natural history finally became democratic.
The biggest natural history clubs, the Linnean and the Royal Societies, were open exclusively to men. Women therefore looked elsewhere to quench their thirst for botany: the beach. Beaches gained a reputation as restorative landscapes where to recover from illness or enjoy some off-time with the family. Diehard scrapbookers as they already were, women took their chance to collage and draw the seaweeds they found on the beach. The gelatinous inner structure allowed for direct gluing onto the page. This technique rose to popularity when Anne Atkins first published Photographs of British Algae in 1843.
By using specimens that she collected and received from amateur scientists, Atkins produced photographic plates by placing wet algae directly on light-sensitized paper and exposing the paper to sunlight. In the 1840s, the study of algae was just beginning to be systematised in Britain. Through her father, scientist John George Children, member of the Royal Society circles including John Herschel and William Henry Fox Talbot, Atkins was familiar with the group’s experiments with photography. Talbot’s so-called “photogenic drawing” technique consisted in placing a flat object against a light-sensitised sheet of paper and exposing this to sunlight until the area around the object began to darken. Herschel devised a chemical method to halt the darkening and crystallise Talbot’s silver-salt image – the very foundation of all photography until the digital era. In 1842 Herschel discovered that when colourless, water-soluble iron salts became exposed to sunlight, they form a compound known as Prussian Blue. Unexposed areas remain unaffected while the salt can be rinsed off with plain water, leaving a blue ‘negative’ image. Affordable and intuitive, the blueprinting process or cyanotype gained immediate popularity and is to date a popular children’s pastime and an artistic technique. Atkins used Talbot’s method to arrange her seaweed specimens on sheets of glass which she repeatedly exposed, and Herschel’s blueprint process to generate multiple copies of her work. Atkins adopted the same technique to produce title pages and content lists. As such, Photographs of British Algae is a landmark at least for two main reasons: it is the first photographic work by a woman, and it is the first book produced entirely by photographic means.