Who created the first book of photographs?

A Victorian lady, the British scientist and illustrator Anna Atkins(1799–1871) is credited with being the first person in the world to use photographic illustrations for a book. Nowadays a photo book is quite easy to publish. There are plenty of apps and organisations to help you. For Anna Atkins it was not so easy.

Her self-published book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, preceded the first part of William Henry Fox Talbot’s, ‘The Pencil of Nature’ by eight months.

 Front cover of Anna Atkins book Photographs of British Algae. Now accepted as the first book of printed photographs.

She produced her photo book as a way to illustrate her botanical work. Privately published, her books were originally held in the libraries of eminent scientists of the time. Now her books are held in some of the most prestigious libraries of the world.

What was her background and why did she become so important?

Anna Atkins was born Anna Children on 16 March 1799 in Cranbrook, near Tunbridge Wells, Kent. Her father was John George Children FRS, a well known and influential scientist involved with both the British Museum and the Royal Society.Her mother Hester died in 1800, she, ‘didn’t recover from the effects of childbirth”, was the diagnosis of the time.

Anna and her father had a close relationship throughout his life. Anna had an unusually scientific upbringing for a girl at that time and this was no doubt when her great interest in botany was laid down. Her father believed that gender should not be a barrier to education and she was encouraged in her development as a scientist. Through him she met and was accepted in her own right, by other scientists of the time.

Anna became highly skilled in drawing and drew the illustrations for her father’s translation of Lamark’s Genera of Shells.

In 1825 she married John Pelly Atkins and moved to the Atkins family home, Halstead Place, Halstead near Sevenoaks, Kent. He promoted pneumatic railways and later became Sheriff of Kent.

They had no children and Anna continued with her interest in botany, collecting, pressing and drying plants. In 1839 she was elected a member of the London Botanical Society. In that year her father chaired the Royal Society meeting when Talbot first publicly explained the details of what he called photogenic drawing. Soon afterwards she and her father were both experimenting with photography. When her father retired in 1840 he went to live with her in Halstead Place and their interest in photography strengthened.

Both Anna’s father and her husband were friends of William Henry Fox Talbot. Anna learned about two of Talbot’s photographic techniques directly from him. She learned his photogenic drawing where an object placed on light- sensitised paper produces an image when exposed to the sun and also about calotypes sometimes called talbotypes. These calotypes produced the first true negatives from which multiple positive prints could be made. By 1841 Anna had her first camera but sadly there are no prints of hers from this.

What are cyanotypes?

In 1842, the distinguished scientist and family friend, Sir John Herschel invented the cyanotype photographic process.

This process produced a cyan blue print. It was special as it could hold great detail and had a permanence which other photographic processes lacked. Cyanotypes became the standard for detailed engineering drawings in what became colloquially known as ‘blueprints’.

Anna was already an experienced illustrator and lithographer as well as a notable botanist. She quickly realised the potential of cyanotypes for illustrating her own botanical work. In October 1843 she produced her self published book, Photographs of British Algae, Cyanotype Impressions. It was a private publication with a limited number of copies and handwritten text, but it has enabled Anna Atkins to be credited with being the first person in the world to publish a book illustrated with photographs.

This first volume her work included over four hundred photographic plates and copies were distributed to friends and institutions. Sir John Heschel received a copy. Her handwritten text was also photographically copied for the printing of the book.

There were of course those who try to put down her achievement. Her illustrations were not photographs as we would understand them but rather she made photograms. Here the dried samples of seaweed were placed directly onto the sensitised paper and then the sheets were exposed to light.

It was not until eight months later in June 1844 that Talbot produced the first commercially published photographically illustrated; The Pencil of Nature. For many years this was erroneously held to be the first photographically illustrated book.

Altogether Anna Atkins produced three volumes of her book between 1843 and 1853 of which on 17 copies are believed to exist. Some copies are not complete. The copies can be found at: the British Library (London), Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (London), Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), New York Public Library (New York), Royal Society (London), Victoria and Albert Museum (London), Linnean Society (London), Horniman Museum and Gardens (London), Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), University de Montreal (Montreal).

The books are rare and historically important and are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. In 2018 the New York Public Library gave an exhibition of her work.

Anna Atkins went on to produce more illustrated works and in the 1850’s collaborated with Anne Dixon, a close childhood friend and a Sussex vicar’s wife. Together they produced three more albums of cyanotype photograms. These were: Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns, 1853 (J Paul Getty Museum), Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns, 1854 (pages in various museums and private collections), and an album to Captain Henry Dixon, 1861 (Anne Dixon’s nephew).

She and Dixon also produced some photographs of a non-scientific nature, looking at the aesthetics of objects.

Anna also made some non photographic books including a biography of her father, but kept all her algae and fern specimens used for her illustrations and donated these specimens to the British Museum in 1865.

She died of “paralysis, rheumatism and exhaustion’, in 1871, aged 72 at Halstead Place, Kent having produced over 10,000 hand printed photograms.