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“Impressions of Plants Themselves”: Materializing Eco-Archival Practices with Anna Atkins's Photographs of British Algae

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 April 2019


Three ghostly white plants float suspended atop the Prussian-blue background of a 27 x 21 cm print (fig. 1). Their leafy fronds are so exquisitely fine that in some places the blue bleeds through their tissues to expose delicate quiltings of veins and willowy inflorescences. Opaque white patches mottle each of the plants to signal where multiple layers of plant flesh overlap. The interplay of shapes, color, and textures in the image captures an atmospheric effect of alien beauty, nearly incomprehensible. That is, until the small label at the bottom of the print in meticulous penmanship informs us that we are looking at Delessaria sanguinea, a type of red algae commonly known as “Sea Beech.” This is one in the thousand-plus body of images that comprises Anna Atkins's Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Dedicated to documenting England's native seaweed, ferns, and flowering plants, Atkins's photographic botanical project ranged about a decade (October 1843–53) and resulted in multiple editions she would give to friends and cultural institutions. While she primarily helmed the project herself, she occasionally included her father, zoologist and photography enthusiast John Children. For the last couple albums, she enlisted as a co-creator her “like a sister” Anne Dixon, who collected, arranged, and developed the images alongside Atkins.

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