More about Cystoseira granulata

Adjunct Instructor, Forsyth Technical Community College

Anna Atkins is where science and art collide.

This blue silhouette of a plant is not an abstract expression of emotion or description of a place but a scientific spectacle. Created by botanist and artist Anna Atkins in 1853, this cyanotype print is part of the first photographically illustrated book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. It was originally published in 1843 with a few addendums added later over the course of a decade. A copy of this book was kept by Sir John Herschel, a friend and the inventor of the cyanotype process, until it made its way into museums later. This work is an example of research and creative production that straddles the border between art and science, like that of John James Audubon and Maria Sybilla Merian.

Cystoseira granulata is a portrait of a form of brown algae. While creating this book, Atkins collected a variety of algae and aquatic plant life by personally traversing the British waters and being given the plants by friends. She created these formal images by placing the plants with their leaves and sometimes roots out on a paper coated in cyanotype emulsion. She then exposed the coated papers with the plants on top and a small handwritten label with the specimen’s scientific name to light. The cyanotype process, which involves a mixture of potassium ferricyanide and iron salts, creates images with deep blue hues when thus exposed. These photographic illustrations are archival when properly washed and kept out of further light. Atkins created each of the prints for every copy of her book by hand. With about 500 illustrations in each complete series of volumes, it's no surprise it took her around ten years to complete. Only around 17 (more or less complete) copies of the book exist today, each one handmade by Atkins. Museums such as the RijksmuseumVictoria and Albert Museum, and Met hold a copy, and you can view the entire series online at the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

While Atkins was originally overlooked as a photographer and artist, today she is considered a radical pioneer of photography and is cemented in #girlpower history. This work is a major milestone in the worlds of scientific research, creating life-sized and repeatable images, and establishing photography as a viable scientific tool. While the primary intention of these images is scientific documentation, their painterly quality and elegant compositions, as well as Atkins’ dedication to the practice, also allow for a more aesthetic appreciation of her work.