Object Lesson: Ceylon cyanotype by Anna Atkins

Anna Atkins (British, 1799–1871), Ceylon [examples of ferns], between 1852 and 1854, Cyanotype, Museum purchase, General Acquisitions Fund, 81.385

This unique camera-less photograph was part of an extensive project to document plants from Great Britain and British colonies like Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and illustrates an early example of how important photography would become in our attempts to learn about and protect the natural world. Anna Atkins (British, 1799-1871) was a trained botanist who adopted photographic processes in order to describe, analyze, and, in a manner of speaking, preserve plant specimens from around the world. She is widely considered the first person to use photographs to illustrate a book, her British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions published in 1843. This particular photograph was produced with Anna Dixon for a later compilation: Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns in 1854. With these and other projects, Atkins helped establish photography as an important tool in scientific and ecological observation.

The London Botanical Society made Atkins an official member in 1839. Soon after, Atkins began studying with William Henry Fox Talbot (the inventor of the negative-positive process) and Sir John Herschel. Herschel created the cyanotype process, which results in the beautiful cerulean color of this cyanotype. Atkins made her photographs by placing plants directly on chemically treated paper and exposing the combination to sunlight, creating a negative image of this fern.

Atkins made all of her cyanotypes in England, often receiving specimens through imperial trade. This image, therefore, was produced over 5,000 miles away from where the plant originated, and now resides in New Orleans—nearly as many miles away from where Atkins lived! Which is to say, Atkins’ photograph is emblematic of photography’s importance for our ability to study ecology and share that knowledge with others.

Here we have a precisely detailed and objective image of a plant that can be transported and shared around the world. At the same time, the technology available to Atkins also had limitations as a tool of scientific observation, namely preventing us from knowing the plant’s color or providing a real sense of the specimen in three dimensions. I would offer that the exclusion of those details help make Atkins’ Ceylon such a straightforward, quietly stunning photograph about the diversity and beauty of our natural world.

—Brian Piper, Mellon Foundation Assistant Curator for Photography

For a related hands-on art project, learn to how make a solar print at home. 


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