Anna Atkins (16 March 1799 – 9 June 1871) was an English botanist and photographer. She is often considered the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images. Some sources claim that she was the first woman to create a photograph.
Atkins was born in Tonbridge, Kent, United Kingdom in 1799. Her mother Hester Anne Children “didn’t recover from the effects of childbirth” and died in 1800. Anna became close to her father John George Children, a scientist of many interests; for example, he was honoured by having the mineral childrenite and the Children’s python, Antaresia childreni, named after him. Anna “received an unusually scientific education for a woman of her time.” Her detailed engravings of shells were used to illustrate her father’s translation of Lamarck’s Genera of Shells, published in 1823.
In 1825 she married John Pelly Atkins, a London West India merchant, and they moved to Halstead Place, the Atkins family home in Sevenoaks, Kent. They had no children. Anna pursued her interests in botany, for example by collecting dried plants. These were probably used as photograms later.
John George Children and John Pelly Atkins were friends of William Henry Fox Talbot. Anna Atkins learned directly from Talbot about two of his inventions related to photography: the “photogenic drawing” technique (in which an object is placed on light-sensitized paper which is exposed to the sun to produce an image) and calotypes.
Atkins was known to have had access to a camera by 1841. Some sources claim that Atkins was the first female photographer. Other sources name Constance Talbot, the wife of William Fox Talbot, as the first female photographer. As no camera-based photographs by Anna Atkins nor any photographs by Constance Talbot survive, the issue may never be resolved.
In the 1850s, Atkins collaborated with Anne Dixon (1799–1864), who was “like a sister” to her, to produce at least three presentation albums of cyanotype photograms:
Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns (1853), now in the J. Paul Getty Museum;
Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854), disassembled pages of which are held by various museums and collectors;
An album inscribed to “Captain Henry Dixon,” Anne Dixon’s nephew (1861).
In addition, she published books with non-photographic work:
She died at Halstead Place in 1871 of “paralysis, rheumatism, and exhaustion” at the age of 72.