This winter the New York Public Library celebrates Anna Atkins, an English botanist and artist from the 1800s. The exhibit Anna Atkins Refracted: Contemporary Works explores Atkins’ influence through the works of 19 contemporary artists.
Atkins specialized in the cyanotype process, an art form more commonly known as blueprinting. The cyanotype process uses a solution of silver nitrate to capture photograph-like images of objects and, in Atkins’ case, nature. While Atkins used it for art and science, the cyanotype process is better known for creating the stereotypical blue and white engineer blueprints.
Atkins would treat a piece of paper in a solution of silver nitrate and cover it with her chosen subject — often a fern or algae. She should leave the paper and plant in the sun for hours and then rinse it, leaving behind a detailed white shadow of the subject.
Many consider Atkins to be the first female photographer — she published several notable works, including the journal which she is best known for: Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843). Her impressions are best imagined as an engineer’s blueprint of a plant. The tangled algae tendrils imprinted in white with jellyfish-like translucency against a vibrant blue. Despite such a simple procedure, her “photographs” capture even the most complicated textures and forms of her subjects.
The New York Public Library’s exhibition, however, did not focus on Atkins’ work but rather the work of contemporary artists she inspired. At first glance, it may be difficult to see what these 19 diverse artists have in common, but after spending time with each piece, it becomes clear that Atkins’ influence, be it in technique or subject, is clearly the web that binds them.
A couple of the artists took influence from Atkins in a quite literal way. Meghann Riepenhoff, for example, made her own rendition of Atkins’ algae journal with the same cyanotype procedure. Her collection of spirit-like algae came across as even more haunting than usual cyanotype impressions; ghostly white echoes of Atkins’ original work. Ulf Saupe also replicated the original algae journal but with a modern, environmental approach. At first glance his work might look like any other cyanotype impression of algae. Saupe, however, merely mimicked the original phantom photos by replacing the algae with plastic bags — a clever point about ocean pollution.
Some artists employed the cyanotype process but with other items, straying away from Atkins’ botanically inspired pieces and drawing inspiration from her technique instead. Roy Arden, a Vancouver-based artist, created cyanotypes of knickknacks (pins and nails) on striking blue-dyed paper boxes. His piece also paid homage to the organic nature of Atkins’ work by incorporating a tangle of roots that branched out like neurons in the cyanotype impression. Penelope Umbrico chose to take the process in a more modern direction — capturing computer and phone screens in an ironically screen-less manner. Umbrico poetically documented the digital world with an analog process. At the exhibit, an entire wall was filled with her cyanotype impressions of screens.
Others diverged from the traditional cyanotype process but stayed true to Atkins’ desire to document life and growth. Owen Kydd’s “durational photograph,” captures a potted plant in a three-dimensional rendering that rotates slowly. With each almost unnoticeable shift, Kydd brings the virtual plant to life, showing life-like detail in every leaf and branch. Kunié Sugiura’s work also diverged from the cyanotype process, capturing not an image of the subject but the subject itself. Her piece preserved real plants between glass, their liveliness captured in the twists and tangles of the vines and leaves. Erica Baum, an artist famous for her “book-edge” compositions, created a series of plant-focused pieces. Her compositions are close-up photos that reveal specific parts of certain pages to tell a story. In her Atkins-inspired series, plants peeked through several pages creating a color-blocked collage of plants and words.
Every piece in the exhibition was stunning in color and composition. The cyanotype impressions were like x-rays — each an eerie white memory of the object it captured with photographic precision. All 19 artists, even those that strayed from the cyanotype process, demonstrated the genius of Atkins: the ingenuity to capture images without a camera.
Aside from actually showing these wonderful works of art, this exhibit was also a demonstration of the nature of inspiration. One artist inspired 19, each in a unique and distinct way. It makes you wonder how these 19 will go on to provoke others, creating an infinite perpetuation of exponentially increasing inspiration and art. Nearly two centuries later, the work of Anna Atkins continues to echo through contemporary art, her legacy creating new legacies.
The exhibition runs until Jan. 6, 2019, in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library.