Anna (Children) Atkins was an English botanist and photographer. She is often considered the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images. Some sources claim that she was the first woman to create a photograph.
She was born in Tonbridge, Kent, England in 1799. Her mother Hester Anne "didn't recover from the effects of childbirth," and died in 1800. Anna became close to her father John George Children, who was a scientist of many interests; for example, he was honoured by having the mineral childrenite and the Children's python, Antaresia childreni, named after him. Anna "received an unusually scientific education for a woman of her time." Her detailed engravings of shells were used to illustrate her father's translation of Lamarck's Genera of Shells, which was published in 1823.
She married John Pelly Atkins in 1825, and they moved to Halstead Place, the Atkins family home in Sevenoaks, Kent. She then pursued her interests in botany, for example by collecting dried plants. These were probably used as photograms later.
Sir John Herschel, a friend of Atkins and Children, invented the cyanotype photographic process in 1842.Within a year, Atkins applied the process to algae (specifically, seaweed) by making cyanotype photograms that were contact printed "by placing the unmounted dried-algae original directly on the cyanotype paper".
Atkins self-published her photograms in the first installment of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in October 1843. Although privately published, with a limited number of copies, and with handwritten text, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions is considered the first book illustrated with photographic images. Eight months later, in June 1844, the first fascicle of William Henry Fox Talbot's The Pencil of Nature was released; that book was the "first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published" or "the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs".
Atkins produced a total of three volumes of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions between 1843 and 1853. Only 17 copies of the book are known to exist, in various states of completeness. Because of the book's rarity and historical importance, it is quite expensive. One copy of the book with 411 plates in three volumes sold for GBP 133,500 at auction in 1996. Another copy with 382 prints in two volumes which was owned by scientist Robert Hunt (1807-1887) sold for GBP 229,250 at auction in 2004.
In the 1850s, Atkins collaborated with Anne Dixon (1799–1864), who was "like a sister" to her, to produce at least three presentation albums of cyanotype photograms:
Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns (1853), now in the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854), disassembled pages of which are held by various museums and collectors.
An album inscribed to "Captain Henry Dixon," Anne Dixon's nephew (1861).
In addition, she published books with non-photographic work:
Atkins, Anna. The perils of fashion. London, 1852.
Atkins, Anna. The Colonel. A story of fashionable life. By the author of "The perils of fashion." London: Hurst & Blackett, 1853.
Atkins, Anna. Memoir of J.C. Children, including some unpublished poetry by his father and himself. London: John Bowye Nichols and Sons, 1853.
Atkins, Anna. Murder will out. A story of real life. By the author of "The colonel," etc. London, 1859.
Atkins, Anna. A page from the peerage. By the author of "The colonel." London, 1863.
She died at Halstead Place in 1871 of "paralysis, rheumatism, and exhaustion" at the age of 72.