Jacob Charles Wilson

Sun, Sea, Algae for The Plant

A white silhouette of a frond of seaweed, laid against a deep blue background. The paper is a little old.
Anna Atkins, Cystoseira fibrosa, 1843.

The photographer Anna Atkins was born 219 years ago on the 16th of March, 1799. It was around this time last year that I wrote on her seaweed cyanotype photographs for The Plant. To mark the occasion, and to celebrate the launch of the latest issue of the magazine, I've posted the full article below.

The British coast is hardly the French Riviera. Where the rolling green-blue seas meet the stony shores the skies are damp, and more often than not dark, overcast and grey. Thankfully in these primordial conditions algae, of which seaweed is a type, thrives. Surrounding these shores are myriad varieties­—from the long and broad fronds of kelp, to the wisp-like slimy whip-weed and forked prongs of black carrageen—intricate plant-like organisms that nutrify the water and bring colour and vitality to the seas and rock pools. It was in conditions like these that early photography grew. It’s history is one entwined with seaweed, the wet processes of development, with practitioners caked in chemical salts, handling delicate membranes of glass and paper, their art plunged into the murk of the darkroom.

Anna Atkins was a photographic pioneer, recognised today as the producer of the first photo book: her self-published Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843). Born in Tonbridge, Kent, in 1799, she was, unusually for a woman of the period, taught chemistry and biology by her father, and thrived in the lively scientific milieu that enveloped her. The daguerreotype, the first modern photographic process, was published in 1839, the same year William Henry Fox Talbot himself taught her his calotype process. In 1842, John Herschel, another close contact, invented the cyanotype, better known today as the blueprint.

Where the daguerreotype was expensive, and the calotype patented, the cyanotype, which used simple untreated paper and a chemical mixture known as Prussian Blue, was cheap, resilient, and perfect for bookbinding. Unlike other processes, the cyanotype doesn't use a camera. Instead, the negative images are made through contact printing. The seaweeds collected by Atkins and her friend, Anne Dixon, were selected, trimmed, and sandwiched between glass, before being laid on the cyanotype paper and exposed to the sun. After around 15 minutes, the paper was washed to stop the development.

This process of collecting and layering between glass and paper resembled the Victorian ladies' pastime of collecting seaweeds and shoreline plants which were sought out, dried, mounted on paper and kept in books. As a hobby, but also an amateur science, this was an acceptable way of enjoying what was barred to women at the time: studies of taxonomy that were otherwise seen as too sexual.

Seaweed was an important cultural object and understood much more as a commodity. It was eaten as a staple foodstuff by some poorer communities in Cornwall, and in Wales porphyra is still used today to make laverbread, part of the traditional Welsh breakfast. Oarweed was collected to use on crops as a fertiliser, and was essential in the process to extract alum for creating wool dyes. In 1811, iodine was isolated from bladderwrack and quickly became used in various photographic processes, including the daguerreotype, to sensitise plates to light.

While British Algae was never described as a work of art, it clearly draws on a history of leisure and aesthetics as well as the scientific aim of cataloguing and describing the natural world. The pictures produced by the cyanotype process are striking, the rough paper captures the delicate transparency of seaweeds, their writhing twisted forms leaving a pale impression amidst a deep blue sea. Perhaps most importantly, Atkin’s use of the cyanotype, invented only the year before, to produce the entire book, from its cover and title page to its illustrations, puts her publication at the forefront of a widespread development in science and in publishing.

Atkins handmade each copy of British Algae, arranging the leaves into volumes and publishing these regularly in small batches. Copies of these volumes are rare and hard to come by. There are known to be 13 in existence, held at the Royal Society, the British Museum, and the Met in New York amongst other collections, but each copy is unique and many feature duplicate or missing pages. You can still view these cyanotypes today, if a special request is made. Unusually, for books, these cyanotypes must be kept in cool, slightly damp conditions ­– somewhat similar to seaweed—and just as seaweed stranded on the foreshore dries and becomes brittle under the sun, cyanotypes too will fade in light. But dampening the prints with water will cause them to rejuvenate and the colours become as vivid as they were when Atkins first made them.

Atkins died in 1871, seeing advances in photography across her entire life. Writing to John Herschel in 1839, Fox Talbot said that photography made, every man his own printer and publisher. To this, Atkins's imagination, aesthetics, and attitude to self-publishing show that, within only a few years of its invention, a woman could be too.

Sun, Sea, Algae is published in issue 11 of The Plant.