By chance, on a recent visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum shop, I spotted on a high shelf a postcard of what looked to be a Prussian blue X-ray of a poppy. The image was fresh and alive, and when I turned the postcard over I was shocked to find not only that it had been made in the 1850s but that its creator had been a woman. Anna Atkins’s album Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843), I later discovered, was the first photographic book ever published, spawning a 10-year cyanotype-print craze in England and the U.S. that was practiced by women and children in particular.
The cyanotype is a kind of early photograph invented by the English astronomer John Herschel in 1842, and was initially used to make blueprints. Herschel showed his friend Anna Atkins the process, and she began to make cyanotypes with overwhelming fervor, probably creating more than 8,000 in her lifetime.