Anna Atkins produced the first photographically illustrated book and is recognised as the first female photographer, with her three-volume British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions appearing in instalments from 1843. Atkins used the Cyanotype process which had been invented in 1842 by Fox Talbot’s associate Sir John Herschel.
The process involves nothing more than light sensitive paper, sunlight and water and results in beautifully subtle negatives of the objects captured, perfect for the botanist wishing to study the exact shapes, textures and patterns of natural forms.
In many ways Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was typical of a certain early Victorian gentlewomen. In an era when refined women like Atkins were not encouraged to participate professionally in science, they nonetheless became skillful amateur helpmates of their fathers, husbands or other male friends. Attitudes toward the seashore were changing greatly and though Darwin had yet to publish his Origin of Species (1859), public interest in natural world was high. Marine debris was a source of curiosity. As botany was the one science in which it was permissible for women to involve themselves, many, like Anna Atkins, spent hours at the seashore collecting specimens, not just for their scientific value but as aesthetic and collectibles objects.