Skip to main content

Kind of Blue: Beautiful Algae Images in Rare 19th-Century Book (Photos)

Sargassum bacciferum

19th-century cyanotypes of British algae

(Image credit: From The New York Public Library)

Nineteenth-century cyanotypes — an early form of photography that create a negative image on a blue background — capture the delicate beauty of British algae, in images taken by botanist Anna Atkins, the first woman to experiment with photography.

[Read the full story on the botanical photos]

Cystoseira granulata

19th-century cyanotypes of British algae

(Image credit: From The New York Public Library)

"Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions," by British photography pioneer and botanist Anna Atkins (1799-1871), is a 19th-century botanical volume, which Atkins self-published in 1844.

Himanthalia lorea

19th-century cyanotypes of British algae

(Image credit: From The New York Public Library)

A copy of the historic volume, the first book to be illustrated with photographs, was recently acquired by the Rijkmuseum in the Netherlands.

Fucus vesiculosus

19th-century cyanotypes of British algae

(Image credit: From The New York Public Library)

Cyanotypes, an early form of photographic printing, uses chemicals and sunlight to create a negative image of an object silhouetted against a blue background.

Chordaria flagelliformis

19th-century cyanotypes of British algae

(Image credit: From The New York Public Library)

Cyanotypes were created by treating paper with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide — iron salts that dissolve in water — and then placing an object on the paper and exposing it to sunlight.

Mesogloia moniliformis

19th-century cyanotypes of British algae

(Image credit: From The New York Public Library)

The cyanotype process forms a compound called Prussian blue,tinting the paper treated with iron salts a shade of deep blue.

Furcellaria fastigiata

19th-century cyanotypes of British algae

(Image credit: From The New York Public Library)

"Photographs of British Algae" contains 307 images of algae native to waters in and around Great Britain.

Delesseria sinuosa

19th-century cyanotypes of British algae

(Image credit: From The New York Public Library)

Atkins produced several editions of "Photographs of British Algae," of which about 20 copies — complete and incomplete — survive today.

Gigartina acicularis

19th-century cyanotypes of British algae

(Image credit: From The New York Public Library)

Atkins produced thousands of algae cyanotypes for her books, a process that took 10 years, according to Rijksmuseum officials.

Rhodomenia laciniata

19th-century cyanotypes of British algae

(Image credit: From The New York Public Library)

In later years, Atkins collaborated with Anne Dixon (1799–1864), another female botanist, to produce two additional books illustrated with cyanotypes: "Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns" (1853) and "Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns" (1854).

Chondrus crispus

19th-century cyanotypes of British algae

(Image credit: From The New York Public Library)

Atkins' pioneering work using cyanotypes helped to establish photography as a medium for accurately representing scientific specimens.

Live Science Staff
For the science geek in everyone, Live Science offers a fascinating window into the natural and technological world, delivering comprehensive and compelling news and analysis on everything from dinosaur discoveries, archaeological finds and amazing animals to health, innovation and wearable technology. We aim to empower and inspire our readers with the tools needed to understand the world and appreciate its everyday awe.