Installation view of “Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins” at the New York Public Library, open through February 17th.
This week we finally made it to the New York Public Library to see Blue Prints. Pro tip: don’t sleep on this exhibition! It features the work of pioneering photographer and scientist Anna Atkins, tapping into over a decade of research and showing off the abiding beauty of Atkins’ cyanotype images. We could talk a blue streak (get it?) about this beautiful exhibition, but the thing we’re most keen to call out is that it’s closing soon—you’ve got one week left to catch Blue Prints at the NYPL’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Make your way to midtown! And if you’re nowhere near to NYC, get your blue fix browsing our curated collection of limited-edition Atkins prints.
Do we love Atkins so much because we’re suckers for a trailblazing woman outstanding in an otherwise male-dominated field (in Victorian England no less)? Of course, but she’s also a fascinating multi-hyphenate who’s likely the first woman ever to create a photograph, and the first person to create a photographically illustrated book. Her book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions represents the first real use of photography to further scientific study. As game-changing as she was in the photography world, she was also an incredibly important botanist whose work made huge strides in the scientific community—before the invention of the cyanotype in the 1840s, scientists relied on illustrations to study botanical specimens.
Though we think of cyanotypes as photographs, creating one doesn’t actually involve a camera. The photographic image resulting from the cyanotype process is a photogram, made by placing objects directly onto the surface of light-sensitive material that’s subsequently exposed, producing a sort of silhouette effect. The astronomer Sir John Herschel invented the cyanotype process and shared his technique with Atkins. Though the process derived from a great deal of scientific knowledge at the time, it’s surprisingly simple in essence: a sheet of paper is coated with iron salts that react to Ultraviolet rays, and objects (ferns, seaweed, flowers, and other botanical bits in Atkins’ case) are placed atop the paper, which is then left outside and exposed to bright sunlight for several minutes. To develop the image, the paper is rinsed under water, but an insoluble blue dye (the result of a chemical reaction) is left behind. That dye, known as Prussian blue, is what gives cyanotype prints their telltale cyan-blue hue.
Atkins’ images may have been created for scientific purposes, but now they’re housed by some of the most esteemed art museums and prized as artworks. It’s easy to see why—in the NYPL’s words, Atkins’ cyanotypes are “ethereal, deeply hued, and astonishingly detailed”. There’s undeniable artistry in the work she created, not to mention a penchant for bucking convention. Precisely why we can't stop adding to our Atkins print collection. Take a peek.
Jen Bekman + Team 20x200