Bookmarks: Anna Atkins

artist book: a work of art realized in the form of a book.

The definition may sound simple, but the world of artist books can be a bewildering place. From the familiar pairing of images and text, to sculptures created out of paper and complicated bindings that create a performance each time the book is opened, nearly anything can be called an artist book if there is intention and consideration. This series showcases artists from different realms of the art world exploring the structure and meaning of the book.

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While relatively unknown during her lifetime, Anna Atkins is now posthumously recognized for her achievements—both as a botanist and as an early “photographer.” In 1843, Atkins had the foresight to privately publish the first book that used photo-derived techniques to illustrate her work rather than drawings. Her text, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (October 1843), is regarded as the first photography book.

Featuring striking Prussian Blue images produced via photogram, Atkins’ book is a thorough guide to the various species of algae found in her home country. Her work was published in a very limited run, since each book was painstakingly made by Atkins. Handwritten text accompanies the pages of cyanotypes.

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Interestingly, Atkins achievements went largely unrecognized during her lifetime, and she remains a point of controversy today. Photography purists argue that Photographs of British Algae is not a photography book at all, since photograms are made without the use of a camera (chemically-treated paper is exposed to sunlight with the object to be imprinted laid overtop). And there remains much debate as to whether she is the first female photographer or if that credit should go to William Henry Fox Talbot’s wife, Constance (both close friends of Atkins).

Despite these modern-day arguments, the achievements of Atkins were exceptional, particularly for a woman in the 1840s. She spent her lifetime studying botany and producing texts using cyanotypes. Between 1843 and 1853, she produced two additional volumes to accompany her first text on British algae. Today, only 17 copies (in various states of completeness) of this rare book exist. (Digital copies of this text can be viewed on the New York Public Library’s website.

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Elizabeth K. Harris is the Director at Louis K. Meisel Gallery. She holds an MA in Visual Arts Administration from New York University and has co-authored two books on art. She likes looking at books more than reading them.