Interview with German author Rolf Sachsse about his book on Anna Atkins

Anna Atkins was a botanist, scientist and the first person to use photography in a book. In 2021 Rolf Sachsse published a book on Anna Atkins called Anna Atkins: Blue Prints. Rolf Sachsse is a professional writer, and mainly writes in German, but the book on Anna Atkins is in both English and German.

Photography / Rolf Sachsse

Cover of Anna Atkins: Blue Prints by Rolf Sachsse
Cover of Anna Atkins: Blue Prints by Rolf Sachsse

What inspired you to write a book on Anna Atkins?

Rolf Sachsse: The idea for the book came in 2020 from the graphic designer Marion Blomeyer. The door was already open, as Anna Atkins always was a part of my life in the history of photography. I had seen some of Anna Atkins’ prints in the V&A in December 1980. When I was preparing an exhibition on the history of colour photography, I had wanted to include the prints in the exhibition but my co-curators from the technical departments of Agfa and Kodak did not think these were colour photography – my thesis of all early photography to be monochrome has been displayed in several lectures two decades later (I should publish this). When I wrote a small volume on the history of photography in 2003, Anna Atkins was part of a long chapter on the early history of the medium. This chapter was however cut by the editors of the book series. Thus, she had a hidden agenda in my research for four decades up to this little book.

What do you find is the most fascinating thing about Anna?

Rolf Sachsse: There are a number of fascinating aspects of Anna Atkins and the backgrounds of her work. During the preparation of my text for the book, an aspect came more and more into my mind: The history of Botanics and biology in parallel to the history of industrialization. Her father George Children attempted to organize nature under Linnean terms, and Anna Atkins had to organize her drawing and copying efforts to be able to collect hundreds of specimens in an efficient way. Anna also had to find a way to publish quickly and inexpensively. In the terms of the British environmentalist James Lovelock and the French philosopher Bruno Latour, nature was transferred by their efforts into a subject of organized utilisation, not as a part of a living planet. Not to forget, this all was financed by the colonial exploitation of Caribbean slaves in the sugar and tobacco industry. But, Anna Atkins, despite being a woman, was strong enough to earn her own position in science. At the time, the cyanotype started to develop its uses in industry and architecture, as a cheap printing and copying process – examples of which I had seen and practised throughout my academic life.

Portrait of Prof. Dr. Rolf Sachsse
Portrait of Rolf Sachsse, self-portrait, Dec. 2019

How did your interest in history start?

Rolf Sachsse: I am the son of a craft photographer who had been an intern of Albert Renger-Patzsch during WWII., and as a child, I accompanied my father on his travels to August Sander and other photographers of the region. Thus, I fell into photographic history. When I completed school, my father had economic troubles and could not finance further studies for me. Instead, I learned photography as a craft, with the best photographers at the time, Karl-Hugo Schmoelz and Walde Huth. I was able to finance my further studies in communication research, art history, and German literature by running my own photographic business. After finishing my PhD. on the history of architectural photography, I ran the first university course in photographic history in Germany at Bonn University, from 1984 to 1986. Since 1985, I have held professorships in various aspects of the practice, history, and theory of design, ending in 2017 at the Saar University of Fine Arts in Sarrebruck – with a course that included photography as a medium. I was never too interested in this medium as fine art.

Portrait of Prof. Dr. Rolf Sachsse
Portrait of Rolf Sachsse, self-portrait, August 2016.

What is your background?

Rolf Sachsse: Besides the aspects named before, I have had a number of experiences on different levels of the arts and culture: From 1977 to 1984 and as an artist (mostly producing large format installations with photographic material, lasers, etc.), I had been a member of the British Artist Placement Group (the archive can be found in the Tate Britain); at the same time, I ran a scientific campaign in building preservation and worked for a number of publishing houses as a reviewer, editor, and author. From 1981 to 2002, I was part of Het Apollohuis in Eindhoven, a place by artists for artists where we had exhibitions, concerts, performances, and installations in sound art and other fields (archive in the ZKM Karlsruhe). In regards to alternative methods of photography, I helped the sculptor Dominique Stroobant in the development of his pinhole projects, including his 10m wide gnomon camera in the centre of Gènève in 1982. Parallel to this, I had been working with computers from the early 1970s, installing one of the first computer studios in design teaching in 1986 at the design department of the Krefeld polytechnic, and sitting in a worldwide developing board for a ‘digital darkroom’, later to be known under the brand name of Photoshop. It’s the average life of a witness in time.

Do you have any more books planned?

Rolf Sachsse: There are several lines of my research that seem to follow me. One is the history of Nazi photography and of those who were exiled by them. One aspect of these efforts is my personal relation to Lucia Moholy (1894-1989), there is a large exhibition planned for her in Prague in 2024 to which I will contribute. Another aspect can be viewed in a book soon to be released by a former student of mine, Christian Herrmann – he collects the visible reminiscences of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine.
The second line of my research is the history of colour photography, and a newer aspect of this has been presented through the efforts of a young editor, Hanin Hannouch. A small book by the German photographer Joerg Winde on colour rooms is in preparation.
The third and maybe the best-known line of my research is on the relationship between architecture and photography; there are plans for three to four monographs on architectural photographers, all in German.

More information about Prof. Dr. Rolf Sachsse’s books can be found on his website.



Get Rolf Sachsse’s book Anna Atkins: Blue Prints
Cover of Anna Atkins: Blue Prints by Rolf Sachsse

Anna Atkins: Blue Prints

by Rolf Sachsse

A detailed work of history that starts with a history of illustrated systematic works of botany. It gives an account of Anna Atkins’ life, the invention of photography and the people around her.


2 thoughts on “Interview with German author Rolf Sachsse about his book on Anna Atkins”

  1. I do have the book – a good read. Lovely designed and printed. Despite my following critique a good buy.

    But again nothing about the Atkins family being slave owners. Even when the blue prints were made after the abolishment of slavery in the british empire, it was replaced by the apprenticeship system which wasn’t any better in humanitarian sense. A good today biography /book on Anna Atkins must explain where the fortune came from. And its a fact in Anna Children married the Plantages and Slave owner John Pelly Atkins in 1825.

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