However unscientific one’s tastes, it’s hard not to admire the achievement of Anna Atkins, indefatigable Victorian lady botanist and self-taught photographer, whose three-volume masterpiece, the exquisite Photographs of British Algae, appeared between 1843 and 1853. Atkins is commonly hailed as the first woman photographer and British Algae — every page featuring a delicately hand-labelled specimen from Atkins’s own huge seaweed collection — is thought to be the first book on any subject illustrated with photographs. Yet Atkins remains obscure, especially when compared with her male contemporaries. It is amazing that her first volume antedated The Pencil of Nature (1844–46), William Henry Fox Talbot’s ground-breaking book of ‘photogenic drawings’, by eight months.
Atkins’s images are cyanotypes — meaning they were made using the early photographic process that was invented by Atkins’s friend Sir John Herschel in 1842. It involved placing the object to be reproduced — a frond of algae, say — directly onto a piece of chemically treated paper and then exposing it to sunlight. Rinsed with water later, the paper would gradually reveal a fantastically detailed negative image of the object — pale, preternatural, seemingly adrift against an eerie, deep-blue sea. (The same method was subsequently used to make ‘blueprint’ copies of architectural drawings.) A positive image could be created from the negative by applying further chemical baths.
In her preface to Photographs of British Algae, Atkins argued that the ‘beautiful process of cyanotype’ did away with the difficulties involved in making accurate drawings of natural objects, particularly objects as ‘minute as […] the algae and conferva’. However skilled, no draughtsman could hope to match the unprecedented reality-effects produced when images derived from ‘impressions of the plants themselves’.
Well, yes and no. How accurate can a picture of the world be, one’s inner village-idiot wonders, if everything we see in it — not just yellowy-greeny-goldy-maroonish-brown seawrack — is recast in alchemical shades of blue? From one angle, the all-blue world of cyanotype is as hallucinatory a domain as the one Alice encounters when she wanders through the looking glass.
If only through an accident of timing — he finished it the same year that Atkins was readying the final volume of Photographs of British Algae for publication — John Everett Millais’s celebrated painting Ophelia (1851–52) might be described as a retrograde riposte to Atkins-style cyano-avant-gardism. Before painting Hamlet’s suicidal heroine — bizarrely afloat amid brackish weeds, singing as she drowns — Millais, himself a fierce stickler for botanical ‘accuracy’, did the plant life first, en plein air, meticulously reproducing vegetation he found growing along the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey over a period of five months.
Pedants will delight in Millais’s slip-up: Shakespeare’s play is set in Denmark, but Ophelia is sinking, quite literally, into British algae. Huzzah for the pond scum of Old England! Yet, while Millais’s picture has its detractors (‘there must be something strangely perverse’ wrote a critic in 1852, ‘in an imagination which souses Ophelia in a weedy ditch’), Millais himself is still routinely praised for his near-scientific ‘depiction of the detailed flora […] of “a natural ecosystem”’.
So, whose algae is more realistic: the photographer’s or the painter’s? I confess I’m stumped. What I do know, however, is that Millais’s painting is thoroughly Victorian in every good and bad sense, whereas Atkins’s studies have a cool, floaty postmodernism I find oddly thrilling. Her images seem abstract, open, impervious — of our moment, rather than of the 1840s. It’s the blue, too, of course: the futuristic cerulean of computer screens, hyperlinks, Bluetooth, BluRay — that magical earth-seen-from-space blue. Millais’s sickly green verdure — by contrast — seems obsolete, almost festering, as if Nature itself had begun to die.
Terry Castle lives in San Francisco, USA, and teaches at Stanford University. She is the author of seven books, including The Professor: A Sentimental Education (2010), a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Her essays on art and literature have appeared in magazines including Harper’s, London Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, Paris Review and The New York Review of Books. She is also a visual artist, collector and blogger, with a particular interest in vintage photography, ’zines and so-called outsider art.
First published in Issue 4