In honour of Women’s History Month, the National Science and Media is paying tribute to the remarkable achievements of two pioneering female photographers, Anna Atkins and Julia Margaret Cameron, whose contributions were instrumental in shaping the landscape of modern photography.

Anna Atkins, born on 16th March 1799, stands as one of the earliest female photographers, renowned for her groundbreaking work in producing the first photographically illustrated book in Britain, titled British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Utilising the cyanotype process, Atkins crafted images of botanical specimens, such as ferns and plants, creating a visual spectacle that captivated audiences of her time. The cyanotype technique also referred to as blueprints, gained immense popularity among amateur photographers during the 19th century owing to its affordability and simplicity.

Atkins ingeniously created her images by delicately placing specimens onto sensitised paper and exposing them to sunlight, resulting in vivid impressions that required no further chemical intervention. Her pioneering efforts paved the way for botanical photography, and her remarkable albums, featuring an array of striking images, are cherished artefacts housed within the esteemed collection of the National Science and Media Museum.

While Anna Atkins was revolutionising the cyanotype process, Julia Margaret Cameron was making her indelible mark as a trailblazing figure in photographic history with her iconic portraits. Regarded as one of the most influential and innovative photographers of the 19th century, Cameron employed glass plates and extended exposure times to produce ethereal and evocative images imbued with romantic and spiritual undertones.

As a woman of means, Cameron wielded her camera to capture the essence of her esteemed social circle, immortalising figures such as Charles Darwin and Alfred, Lord Tennyson through her lens. Her portraits, often depicting themes of innocence, piety, and wisdom, reflected her artistic vision and garnered widespread acclaim.

Residing in both a stately home on the Isle of Wight and a tea plantation in Sri Lanka, Cameron found inspiration in her surroundings, photographing not only the affluent individuals in her midst but also the labourers who toiled on her estates. These workers, predominantly women, became subjects of Cameron’s elaborate and stylised portraits, though sadly, little is known about their lives beyond the confines of her photographs.

Reflecting on the legacy of these pioneering photographers, Ruth Quinn, Curator of Photography and Photographic Technology at the museum, remarked, “Anna Atkins and Julia Margaret Cameron blazed trails in the nascent days of photography, pushing the boundaries of the medium during its infancy. Their enduring contributions have left an indelible mark, shaping the trajectory of modern photography and serving as a beacon of inspiration for contemporary practitioners.”

For those interested in delving further into the stories of pioneering women in photography, visit: www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/history-photography