Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins @New York Public Library

JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 vitrines containing bound albums by Anna Atkins and/or Anna Atkins and Anne Dixon, as well as supporting materials, images, books, and letters by Atkins, her family members, William Henry Fox Talbot, Sir John Herschel, Bertha Jacques, Man Ray, and others, displayed against dark brown walls in a small gallery space on the first floor of the museum. The exhibit also includes 12 unbound cyanotypes, framed lithographs, a video page through of one of the Atkins albums, and other ephemera. (Installation shots below.)

A scholarly catalog has been produced in conjunction with the exhibit, co-published by DelMonico Books/Prestel and the NYPL (here). Hardcover, 176 pages, with 120 color reproductions. Includes essays by Larry J. Scharf, Joshua Chuang, Emily Walz, and Mike Ware. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: If the photobook is to earn the enduring respect of the art world as a distinct photographic genre, it must attract the long term attention of scholars and academics. While deeply researched compendiums of notable photobooks from across the history of the medium (in particular the Parr/Badger volumes and the many national/geographic surveys that have been published in recent years) have provided a first layer of education and legitimacy, to be fully regarded as a stand alone artistic form, the photobook will need to be studied in even more depth, and professionals from both libraries and art museums will need to collaborate to write that history.

There is a certain obvious logic to starting at the beginning, and this is what the team at the New York Public Library has done with this study of the 19th century British photographer Anna Atkins. Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843-1853) is generally credited as being the first photobook ever published, and this exhibit makes a concerted effort to go beyond just celebrating that singular achievement to put both her life and her books in a broader historical context.

Given the subject matter, any investigation of Atkins would predictably wander back and forth between an emphasis on book making and an emphasis on art/photography, and given this particular venue and the difficulties of displaying open spreads of the rare extant examples of her work, the presentation tilts a bit more toward the bookish side of her story. Atkins was born in 1799 in Kent, in England, and her father John George Children was a scientist (and later worked at the British Museum). Their home, Ferox Hall, included a lab, and experiments and interest in science were an integral part of Atkins’ upbringing. In 1825, she married John Pelly Atkins, and in the years following, she continued her scientific pursuits, turning to botany in particular, as it was one of the few scientific fields (at the time) that allowed women to participate.

Prior to Atkins’ landmark achievement, botanical illustration was limited to hand-drawn renderings or the physical insertion of actual dried specimens. And while adept watercolorists and lithographers tried their best to make accurate reproductions of plants and flowers, it was inevitable that the artists weren’t always entirely faithful to the scientific realities placed before them and that they didn’t always highlight the details that would be of most interest to scientists. These constraints changed with the invention of photography in the 1830s. Between the chemical innovation found in William Henry Fox Talbot’s original salt prints and Sir John Herschel’s technical improvements of the cyanotype process in 1842, the stage was set for Atkins’ entrance. (Talbot’s own photobook The Pencil of Nature would be published in 1844, just after Atkins’.)

Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions must have looked altogether radical when it was first circulated among Atkins’ friends and associates. Its technical detail and scientific fidelity to its specimens must have made clear to all who saw it that a new age was coming – this was an exhaustive reference guide (originally separated into 12 volumes) that was more accurate than any specialized natural history compendium that had preceded it.

But what makes Atkins’ books so compelling is just how consistently (and enduringly) beautiful they are. Set against the enveloping hues of Prussian blue, the dry algae fragments have been arranged in negative compositions that are filled with lyrical delicacy. Flattened by the photographic process, they become linear forms, some exhibiting a kind of ethereal transparency that allows us to see through the tiny tendrils and extending fingers. Atkins clearly had control over how these specimens were laid out, and often pulled them into swooping curves, feathery clusters, and even on occasion unbalanced near-abstractions. Her deliberate artistry is also evident in the title and text pages (which are also cyanotypes), some of which turn algae details into a kind of seaweed font, the letters decorated with natural squiggles.

My only wish for this show is that there had been some way to overtly show more of the individual images, even in reproduction; a video screen attempts to deliver this, but such presentations are single user, and often take more time to engage with than any average visitor is willing to invest. The NYPL has heroically gathered together more copies of Atkins’ photobooks (both owned by the library itself and loaned from other institutions and private collections) than have likely been brought together in one place since she made them (there are only 14 complete or substantially complete copies known to survive), and the effort to acquire a missing volume III to match the original Herschel set is a reminder of just how patient and tenacious institutions can be when they are on the trail of something important.

But in vitrines, even when the individual volumes are carefully divided out, we can only see one spread at a time. Over the years, a few volumes have been broken up and sold as individual prints in the wider art market, and several of these single prints are on display as well, but in aggregate, we don’t see enough of the hundreds of artful compositions she made. Pushed into a tight gallery space and filled with vitrines, there just isn’t any room in this one-room show for a huge wall of glorious cyanotypes, which feels like a missed opportunity.

This deficit is however addressed in the catalog, a work of impressive scholarship that will clearly become the standard reference guide on Atkins going forward. Among many essays and historical details, it includes roughly 80 full page, exactingly-crafted reproductions of her cyanotypes (from various volumes), and this is where the magic of her expressive arrangements can be seen much more fully.

A handful of years after Atkins’ first photobooks came out, Atkins partnered with her friend Anne Dixon and turned her attention to flowers, ferns, and feathers. Their arrangements of leaves and sprigs of plants are somewhat more recognizable to a wider audience than the original blobs of algae, and as a result, are in many ways even more artfully compelling. But by the time Atkins died in 1871, she had been largely forgotten, her pioneering work fading into obscurity.

What this exhibit does is correct that historical error and emphatically return Atkins to her rightful place at the head of the photobook line. She brilliantly combined the practical, the technical, the studious, and the artistic, taking an arcane area of scientific study and turning it into a venue for understated artistic experimentation. In doing so, she invented the photobook as a form. Atkins deserves a more prominent place in the history of the medium than she has so far been given, but hopefully meticulously curated exhibits like this one will help bring her out of the dusty footnotes, so more people can understand and appreciate her lasting importance and influence.

Collector’s POV: Since this a museum show, there are of course no posted prices or works for sale. Atkins’ prints are only rarely available in the secondary markets, with only a handful of lots coming up for sale in the last decade. Prices for those single prints have ranged from roughly $5000 to $35000, but that range is not necessarily representative of the market for her best work. The last full volume to come up for sale (Part III, in 2016) fetched $220000.

Read more about: Anna Atkins, New York Public Library (NYPL)

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