HBD Anna Atkins! “Sun Gardens” is a celebration.

"Papaver rhoeas" by Anna Atkins, appears on the cover of Sun Gardens: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins

Everyone here at 20x200 is crazy about pioneering photographer Anna Atkins, but our founder Jen Bekman takes that love to the next level. Below, she talks about the Atkins book that's the extra-special object of her affection at the moment, and shares some deets from her interview with the curator behind it. - Team 20x200 

Anna Atkins was born on this date in 1799, which makes today a very fine day to sing the praises of the reissued edition of Sun Gardens: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins that was published in conjunction with the New York Public Library’s exhibition of Atkins’ work. Over-sized in its dimensions and printed on beautiful—and notably uncoated—paper, it’s an absolutely stunning celebration of Atkins, featuring the finest reproductions of her cyanotypes that I’ve ever seen in a mass-produced publication. That I’ve seen a lot of terrible reproductions of cyanotypes in general and Atkins’ work makes me that much more appreciative of this particular publication's triumph, and I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes on the phone yesterday with the mastermind behind its editing and production, NYPL curator Joshua Chuang.

Once I got done with gushing over how beautiful and special the book is, I took a deep breath and asked him a few questions about his work on the NYPL exhibition and his approach to the book and we covered more ground than I can possibly cover in one newsletter. I’m hoping to persuade him to join me for a longer conversation for our Live With Art podcast, but in the meanwhile I’ll share a couple of gems from yesterday’s call here.

On his original inspiration for the show: “When I first saw the copy that the library has—which is a very special copy—I suddenly realized that I didn’t really know her work as well as I thought, and that there was a story here that not enough people knew about… and the library could play a role in telling that story.”

We spent most of our time talking about the book itself, which was totally fascinating. We did plenty of nerding out about the particulars of printing and production, but Joshua was most eloquent and inspiring when talking about the goals behind all the work that went into it:

“One of the things I hoped got across in the exhibition and the [catalog] is that it’s really important to understand [Atkins] project as a publication, a book, and not just as a found album of related prints.” He described previously exhibitions which had “borrowed prints from an album that was disbound, with an institution, so they were framed and on a wall and you didn’t get a sense that they were meant to be handled, they were meant to be flipped through. That’s something we tried to drive home in the exhibition, so that made the effort of making a compelling book on her work and on her books, that made it even more important to get it right.”

This is especially true since, as Joshua tactfully put it, previous publications “haven’t conjured the experience of her originals.” The goal of the book, says Joshua was “to give a palpable sense of holding one of these things in your hands because that’s one of those things that we can’t give many people. We have to restrict access to the original because it’s so fragile … her work doesn’t reproduce that well in 4-colors (CMYK) and this might be the last chance to really set the story straight, to really establish what it is like to experience her work. And we saw it as an opportunity to really invest in. So it was an incredibly costly … had the book been priced according to what it cost to make it should have been $250, but we wanted to get it into as many libraries and as many hands as possible.”

What a feat and what a gift Sun Gardens is, and it’s soon to be a scarce one too. Joshua mentioned that the printing is getting close to selling out, and is unlikely to be printed again due to those aforementioned prohibitively expensive costs. With that in mind, I’d say that the best possible way to celebrate Atkins on her birthday is to get yourself a copy of your very own (while you still can!)

- Jen Bekman


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