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INSIDE THE FRAME - Spotlight on herbaria

INSIDE THE FRAME – Spotlight on herbaria

Just as cultural institutions are reopening their doors, Blind explores museum collections and takes a closer look at some historical photographs. Today, we focus on a cyanotype by the British photographer Anna Atkins which is part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It almost feels like going back to childhood, to a time of handmade herbariums, leaves and flowers pressed like hard-won treasures between the crinkled pages of a notebook. This blue herbarium, however, has been assembled by an expert and seasoned hand, bringing out the object of the botanical quest in negative. It looks like a stencil, an illustration, or a collage; but it is a photographic print, and more precisely a cyanotype, or a monochromatic process that makes it possible to obtain a “photograph without a camera.”

Anna Atkins, Sargassum bacciferum, vers 1853, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2005 (CC0 1.0, Public Domain Dedication)

Between 1843 and 1853 Anna Atkins, a British botanist who died in 1871, produced the various plates of her famous twelve-part “herbarium” entitled British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. The photographer-botanist used the cyanotype technique developed in 1839 by John Herschel, which consists in making the object of the “photograph” appear in negative on photosensitive paper exposed directly to light.

Imprinted by sunlight, this branch of Sargassum bacciferum, a species of brown algae, is revealed in all its luxurious detail. The magic of cyanotype brings together utmost precision of the tips of the algae with a central movement that is more blurry, less defined, lending the plant volume and life, which are by definition elusive. Therein lies the attraction of Anna Atkins’s cyanotypes: an archive of botanical data and observations, her images are no less photographic, with an undeniable element of chance and poetry.

By Anne Laurens

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