I came across a beautifully illustrated book called The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the first book of photographs and naturally became intrigued. I wanted to know more and set up an interview with the creator Fiona Robinson.
Why a book on Anna Atkins?
Fiona Robinson: I’m an author and illustrator of children’s picture books. Before creating The Bluest of Blues, I’d made a book about Ada Lovelace – the world’s first computer programmer – titled Ada’s Ideas.
I’d been growing increasingly frustrated about the lack of books showing positive role models for girls. So many important, creative, talented women had been overlooked through history in favor of their male counterparts.
A photographer friend introduced me to Anna Atkins. He’d studied her in depth at Arts Center, California, as part of his degree. And while I was aware of the magic of sun prints from store-bought kits, I hadn’t realized the fascinating history and chemistry behind them, or that Anna Atkins had used them to create the world’s first book of photographs in 1843. Her work was groundbreaking and I wanted children to know about her.
So I made an appointment and went to The Metropolitan Museum in New York to view one of the copies of ‘Photographs of British Algae, Cyanotype Impressions’* . I turned the blue pages of her blue book, wearing blue gloves, and I decided to call my book about Anna’s book The Bluest of Blues.
*Note from the editor: Not the same as seeing it in real life, but a digital copy of this wonderful book can be downloaded free of charge here
Anna Atkins’ startling, realistic images, suggesting live seaweeds, seemed to be captured in a moment in the sea itself. (And of course, the contradiction here is that all that fresh immediacy has taken time and hard work, patience and dedication!)
I think one of the most exciting things about Anna’s work for me, and what served as further inspiration to create The Bluest of Blues, is that her books were both artistic and scientific endeavours. The fields of art and science often seem completely divorced from each other. There’s always talk of being left-brained or right-brained (which I think is misleading and restrictive).
In her book, Anna combined her scientific knowledge – of botany and the chemistry and process of cyanotype – with her artistry, composing beautiful images and hand rendering all the titles and text. Photography itself is both scientific and artistic!
I was also drawn to Anna because though she seemed to me to be quite unassuming, perhaps a little shy (she signed her book simply AA, which for over a century was assumed to mean Anonymous Author), she took Herschel’s cyanotype invention and she RAN WITH IT! To dedicate a decade of your life, to something that other people might not be interested in, might never see, might not work – that shows so much commitment.
Do you do cyanotypes or have an interest in botany yourself?
Fiona Robinson: Yes to both of these questions!
When I realized I wanted to create The Bluest of Blues, I decided that I should learn the entire process of cyanotype. I needed to get a sense of what Anna felt when she worked: the thrill of the image intensifying into a deep blue in water – that magic – and also the frustration when the process doesn’t work, the patience preparing the paper, the experimentation with exposure times, everything! I felt a little like a method actor – the experience was essential to the book’s development.
As my partner Jay Zukerkorn was a photographer, it probably wasn’t as steep a learning curve as it might have been. But it took a long time and a lot of focused energy to produce what we intended. So I am very much in awe, and respect the artists whose work is on this site.
Here are some of the images my partner Jay Zukerkorn and I made:
As for an interest in botany – I’m fascinated by plants and went to night school classes at Brooklyn Botanical Garden for several semesters. When I wasn’t sure whether I’d like to concentrate solely on my art, I seriously considered a further degree in either landscape architecture or botany! So finding a subject like Anna Atkins – artist and botanist – was exciting for me!
How did you create the beautiful illustrations in the book?
Fiona Robinson: For the images in The Bluest of Blues, I made “collages’ in PhotoShop – drawings, watercolors, photographs, cyanotypes and sometimes scans of flat materials like wallpaper and wood veneers were combined. It was a lot of fun to use so many methods – and to use so much blue, with small pops of red and yellow to highlight things.
What is your line of work?
Fiona Robinson: Currently I am an author and illustrator of children’s picture books. My degree is in graphic design and I worked for several years as a designer, which greatly influenced my work creating books now – balancing both written and pictorial story.
I am also a painter. In 1999 I was honoured with a Royal Academy of Art award for the best first-time exhibitor in their summer show.
I am so glad to have studied Anna Atkins’s work. It has really helped me develop as an artist, especially as I now consider to a greater degree the use of negative space in my work, and I have become so much more patient!
I recently completed my trilogy of books on great women overlooked by history, with Out of the Shadows – how Lotte Reiniger made the first animated fairytale movie, (published by Abrams 2022). Lotte was a silhouette artist and animator, and it was a natural progression for me, after seeing the fantastic use of negative space by Anna to then move on to study Lotte.
What is your next exciting thing?
Fiona Robinson: I’m currently writing a chapter book for children. I can’t say too much now, but it involves some very creative characters who like to experiment with arts and crafts, just like me!
A beautifully illustrated children’s book – but very enjoyable for adults too – about Anna Atkins.