Anna Atkins

After I went to MoMA I wandered downtown making my way overland to Penn Station. My route took me past the New York Public Library so I decided to duck inside and see Winnie the Pooh (and send a photo to my kids). I had no idea what the special exhibition was and was pleased to see it was photography-related.

Also, it was awesome.

I had not heard of Anna Atkins before so I was just interested in seeing a bunch of old cyanotypes. There’s something wonderful about the old photographic processes and the way the images emerge from the exposed, colored paper. So unlike anything we’re used to seeing today while also being simple and tactile.

My son made a cyanotype photogram in school this year and I love it. Just seeing the flowers and the shadows they leave on the paper captures so much of the wonder of photography and the way that real things are transformed by how they interact with light.

Anna Atkins is a master. The exhibition was a small gallery filled with prints and bound books of cyanotypes. All kinds of plants delicately arranged on the paper and printed so you can see both their shadows and translucency. They evoke pressed flowers but also have an elegance in how they abstract things to the simple single-color tonal range.

They’re wonderful to look at and see as scientific observations and recording where you can compare the plants and their structures. They’re also flat-out beautiful prints* which are perfect for something like seaweed which floats in water and plays with filtered light.

*Lots of good examples over at Hyperallergic.

One of my favorite exhibits in the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the one which shows the kelp forest and places the kelp between me and the sunlight so I can get a sense of how magical the light in the forests must be. It’s a difficult thing to capture well with a camera and many of these cyanotypes put my attempts to shame.

It’s not just the plant prints that are great though. Atkins used the cyanotype process as a way to print entire books. Text and title pages are all printed as blue prints. It’s a wonderful way to home-brew your own printing just in general and creates a book where everything feels incredibly consistent.

Yes, book. Many of these prints are bound into large volumes of prints. There’s a book of British seaweed. Another of British flowers. I found myself inspecting the bindings to try and figure out how the heck they were assembled since they can’t be bound signatures.

Some of the books are clearly assembled sheets with the edges sewn together. No edge or face trim has left them looking pretty ragged since the pages aren’t exactly the same size or aligned perfectly. Others though look like proper books with gilt edges and I really can’t see how the pages were assembled. It’s an impressive binding job that the exhibit doesn’t even call attention to.

The other exhibition space in the library is dedicated to contemporary works which are riffing on what Atkins did. So more photograms and cyanotypes and experiments in how the photo paper itself reacts to light. They’re fun to see but none of them match the originals.*

*Collector Daily has a decent write up.

I did however especially enjoy Alison Rossier’s exposed expired photo paper both in the simplicity of the work and how it shows the numerous different responses that paper can have to light.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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