Women were barred from university. When married they ceased to exist. They couldn’t own anything. They were invisible. So how did Anna Atkins (1799-1871) become one of the most significant early woman photographers? In conjunction with the exhibition BLUE PRINTS: THE PIONEERING PHOTOGRAPHS OF ANNA ATKINS at the New York Public Library, The library put together a public symposium on Anna Atkins. The answer to this questions was only partially answered. Anna’s mother died during her early childhood. Her father and grandfather brought her up. They were her everything. Anna was an only child, even though her father re-married, Anna’s stepmother died in childbirth. Her family was Anna and her father. Was it this special bond that empowered Anna to pursue what became her life’s work?
Anna Atkins was described by Rose Teanby, Associate of the Royal Photographic Society as “an accidental trailblazer.” The irony being that women were hidden from view, and yet Anna Atkins work was about making nature visible. Anna began making cyanotypes (camera-less images) in 1843.
Herbarium specimens can be traced to 16th century Italy. Atkins cyanotypes could be dismissed as a new way of recording or preserving natural specimens. The England, in which Atkins lived, was a time of revolution, invention, discoveries, technological advances: it was an exciting time.
What is interesting about the work of Anna Atkins is the aesthetic quality of her cyanotypes. Whether they are “photographs” or artifacts is not important.
These days I’ve been wearing a t-shirt that says “the future is female”. Anna Atkins was one of those women, who contributed to the ideas behind that phrase.