Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843-53) by Anna Atkins
Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843-53) by Anna Atkins

A Google Doodle for the author of the first photobook

How the botanist Anna Atkins, born today in 1799, created the first photography book over 170 years ago

Why has Google chosen to honour the birthday of an obscure British botanist? Probably because, like the search giant’s more innovative undertakings, Anna Atkins found a high-tech solution to a problem.

Today’s Google Doodle acknowledges how Atkins, a Victorian scientist and photographer, employed an early photographic process to overcome the illustrative limitations of the time. The British scientist Sir John Herschel first invented cyanotypes in 1842. This process creates photosensitive paper that turns blue on exposure to light. Herschel thought it would be used for copying plans or other technical details, yet Atkins realised that, by placing a small plant on the paper, she could create a highly detailed outline of the specimen.

 

Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843-53) by Anna Atkins
Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843-53) by Anna Atkins

In combining this new image-making method into a privately produced book, Atkins is commonly credited with authoring the world’s first photobook, as Martin Parr and Gerry Badger acknowledge in The Photobook: A History Volume 1. Quoting the great photo historian Larry J Schaaf, Parr and Badger note that, “Atkin’s production was the first realistic attempt to apply photography to the complex task of making repeatable images for scientific study and learning.” 

Some say that Atkins' book, which was hand illustrated, and privately printed, was more a photo album rather than a proper, commercially produced book. However, as Badger and Parr go on to note, such a close reading of photobook history misses the bigger picture: “Atkins did as much as [fellow photographer and more widely acknowledged pioneer] William Henry Fox Talbot in fostering the connection of photographs in a book form. Furthermore, she succeeded in demonstrating the best qualities of the many that were to follow her pioneering examples.

“The images are beautiful. Made as botanical illustrations, they fulfill that function to perfection, but like the best photography, they do much more. They combine scientific information with aesthetic pleasure.” And that’s something the boffins at Google still admire to this day. 

 

The Google Doodle honouring Anna Atkins
The Google Doodle honouring Anna Atkins

You can read more about Atkins and her beautiful book, as well as plenty of other photobook pioneers in The Photobook: a History Volume 1. And if you like that, there’s plenty more in Volumes 2 and 3. And for any budding botanists out there check out The Gardener's Garden.