National Science and Media Museum celebrates photography pioneers for Women’s History Month

To mark Women’s History Month, the National Science and Media is celebrating the life and work of female photography pioneers, Anna Atkins and Julia Margaret Cameron, who were both instrumental in the development of modern photography.

Anna Atkins, born on 16 March 1799, is one of the first female photographers, known for producing the first photographically illustrated book in Britain, British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, with images created by the cyanotype process. Cyanotypes, also known as blueprints, were made using chemically photosensitive processes. As the process was relatively cheap and easy to produce, cyanotypes became very popular in the 19th century among amateur photographers.

Atkins created her images by laying specimens like ferns or plants directly onto sensitised paper and exposing them to sunlight. Once exposed, the prints would be washed and dried, but no further chemicals were needed to produce the image. Throughout her career, Atkins produced several cyanotype albums featuring striking images of ferns and plants pioneering the way for botanical photography. Her albums are held in the National Science and Media Museum’s collection.

Iago by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867. Science Museum Group Collection

While Atkins was perfecting the cyanotype process, Julia Margaret Cameron was establishing herself as a seminal figure in the history of photography with her striking portraits. Known as one of the most influential and creative photographers in the 19th century, Cameron created her negatives using glass plates with long exposure times to create romantic and spiritual looking images.

Cameron was a wealthy woman, who photographed prominent figures in her social circle, including Charles Darwin and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. She often liked to portray innocence, piety and wisdom through her portraits. Cameron lived both in a grand house on the Isle of Wight and on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka. On both of her estates, she photographed the people who worked there, often in elaborate and highly stylised  portraits.

These workers, often women, found themselves at the centre of Cameron’s photographic practice, though unlike Cameron’s portraits of the rich and famous, we know little about these sitter’s lives.

The Mountain Nymph Mrs Keene by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866. Science Museum Group Collection

Commenting on the photographers, Ruth Quinn, Curator of Photography and Photographic Technology at the museum said:

“Anna Atkins and Julia Margaret Cameron were both pioneers in the early days of photography, pushing the boundaries of the medium when it was still a new technology. Undoubtedly their influential contributions paved the way for modern photographers and continues to be incredibly influential today.” 

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