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Carix (America), from Part XII of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850

Algae Queen

The Botanist Who Paved
The Path For Photography

The 19th century British photographer Anna Atkins is considered the woman who made the world's first photobook, though she largely earned that recognition posthumously.

What makes her achievement so profound isn’t just her pioneering use of cyanotype photogenic illustrations, but that she used the method to capture and study the natural world. Trained as a botanist, Atkins took up photography to record botanical specimens for scientific reference, culminating in the now highly regarded book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843–53).


Raised in Kent, England, Atkins came from a well-off family. Her mother passed away when she was young, so she was raised by her father, a respected scientist and the first president of the Royal Entomological Society of London. His position allowed Anna to step into science— women were restricted from the profession for most of the nineteenth century, although botany and botanical art were seen as an acceptable hobby. In her early twenties she produced several hundred scientifically accurate watercolor and graphite drawings of shells, to be published in her father's English translation of Genera of Shells (1822-24).

Atkins didn’t turn to photography until her early 40s. While she owned a camera, Atkins opted for the photogenic drawing technique—she learned the cyanotype printing method through its inventor, the astronomer and scientist Sir John Herschel, a family friend—to fashion her exquisite botanical images. She collected the sea specimens herself or from other amateur scientists, and made the plates by placing the wet algae directly on light-sensitized paper and exposing the paper to sunlight. To create the approximately fourteen copies of British Algae, she printed about six thousand cyanotype photogram exposures on hand-treated paper. The book was self-published without help from any enterprise or society. The resulting photograms are strikingly artful, the algae silhouettes seeming to float effortlessly, with gradations of blue showing in minute detail the varying shapes and density of the strands of seaweed.

Conscia Life: Algae Queen

Callithamnion pedicellatum

Schizonema comoides (top left), Conferva Linum (top right), and Callithamnion pedicellatum (bottom) Callithamnion pedicellatum from Part XI of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850

golden half circle shape

While her aim wasn’t to be an artist, Atkins was clearly tuned into aesthetics, laying her subjects out on the page in choreographed compositions, from groupings of small sprigs to singular tentacled sprays. The Latin text—also captured by cyanotype, rather than the letterpress-printed technique that was standard in her day—reminds us that, beauty aside, we are in the realm of scientific categorization, capturing natural phenomenon in all their precise glory.

Dictyota stomaria

Dictyota stomaria, from Part XI of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850


Conscia Life reflects our desire to build a conscious lifestyle that extends beyond our hair care brand. It’s where we tell stories that inspire, educate and highlight issues, offering a richer connection between self care and the natural world, between wellness and social culture, and between the today and tomorrow we all share.