Anna Atkins was born Anna Children in the town of Tonbridge in the English county of Kent. Her mother died soon after she was born and Anna was raised by her father John George Children, who was a chemist, mineralogist, and zoologist. Anna was particularly interested in plant collecting and botany, and in 1823 illustrated her father’s translation of a book on the subject of shells with her own engravings.
Through her father, Atkins knew Sir John Herschel, the inventor of the process known as “cyanotype”. This process, originated in the 1840s, was one of the first non-silver technologies used to create photographic images. It later evolved into the process known by the term “blueprint”, those blue background reproductions of large architectural and mechanical drawings. William Henry Fox Talbot, another acquaintance of the Atkins family, improved upon the chemistry to create what he called the “calotype” and this became the basis for all subsequent negative/positive processes.
Anna Atkins recognized that photographic processes were an excellent method to accurately illustrate scientific studies. She began work on her first book British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions using the cyanotype process, which today is often referred to as sun printing. This was a 12-part privately published series which Atkins worked on from 1843 to 1853. Anna Atkins is considered to be the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images. However, since it was privately published, her mentor Sir John Herschel is the person credited with producing the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs (The Pencil of Nature, 1844).
Atkins followed her series with two other volumes, British and Foreign Ferns and British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns. Atkins collaborated on these books with Anne Austen Dixon, a close childhood friend and incidentally a distant cousin of the novelist Jane Austen. Additionally, Atkins published several other non-botanical volumes, including a memoir of her father.
Atkins died on June 9th, 1871 at age 72. The cause of death was given as “paralysis, rheumatism, and exhaustion”.
“Anna Atkins published the first book with photographs. Here are a few of them.”
“The Cyanotype Process”
The New York Public Library Digital Collections: “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions”