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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.