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Cyanotypes of Dutch Algae

The story of making a photographically illustrated book that contains an overview of all species of Dutch algae through cyanotypes, in the spirit of Anna Atkins.

Ulva pertusa

Cyanotypes of Dutch Algae is a project by Pai Dekkers about algae and cyanotypes. I am fascinated by algae and the cyanotype process and want to share my discoveries in attempting to create a photographically illustrated book that contains all the species of Dutch algae. I want to explore the cyanotype process, question different approaches toward nature and show the mostly hidden algae lifeforms.

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Photographs of British Algae

In 2017 the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam acquired a copy of Anna Atkins' Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. The book was on display during the Rijksmuseum's exhibition on early photography New Realities. In the exhibition, one page of the book was on display with behind it a wall covered with facsimiles. Later, in 2018 Pai had the opportunity to view the entire book, leaving a permanent impression.

Anna Atkins at the Rijksmuseum

Blue pages with intricate images have haunted me from the moment I first encountered one of Anna Atkins' extraordinary books on British algae in the Rijksmuseum. Fascinated by her methods, I feel the need to comprehend her undertaking from a photographic perspective. Even though her approach is primarily a botanical one, the photographs she made from 1843-1853 are still incredibly beautiful today. I am, therefore, attempting to create a Dutch book on algae, in her spirit.

In the book Sun Gardens: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins (2018), there is an overview of all the remaining copies. I learnt there are only seventeen known copies left, preserved by museums. Although preservation is necessary, this is problematic because the only time people are able to marvel at the photographs is during exhibitions. Needless to say these are quite rare. Even more problematic is the exhibiting of photography books, because you can only show one page at a time. Meaning, during a three-month exhibition the museum might only show three pages in total. Of course there are digital reproductions, but from my experience they do not even begin to compare to the original photographs. The physicality and detail of the prints are almost incomprehensible from a digital screen or offset printed book. It becomes even more impressive when you realise every page of the book is made by hand. There are estimates Mrs. Atkins must have produced over ten thousand prints during her life.

A page from the copy at the Rijksmuseum

A page from the copy at the Rijksmuseum

Mrs. Atkins did not only make books on algae. Together with her friend Anne Dixon she worked on Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns. However beautiful, for me they do not quite utilize the quality of the cyanotype when used to produce a photogram. By placing the algae directly on the photographic paper, the transparency of the algae becomes visible in the finished print. Plants in general have thicker leaves that do not let light pass through them. This added dimension of transparency is why the impressions of algae intrigue me particularly. For the cyanotype process offered Mrs. Atkins in the nineteenth century, as it still offers us today, a new way of seeing.