Clark Purchases Rare Photograph by Pioneering Photographer Anna Atkins

For Immediate Release

April 29, 2004

Atkins Was First Prominent Woman Photographer and First to Use Photography for Book Illustration

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute yesterday purchased a rare, 1850s work by pioneering British photographer Anna Atkins (1799-1871), the first woman to produce and publish a significant group of photographs. The cyanotype photogram-a type of photograph made in sunlight without the use of a camera-is entitled South America and shows the direct imprint from a fern frond. The Clark purchased the photogram at a Sotheby's, New York, auction.

"Atkins was a great innovator and the first woman to gain prominence in the field of photography, which makes this print historically important. We are pleased to add the work of a second woman photographer to our collection, which previously included one work by Julia Margaret Cameron," said Michael Conforti, director of the Clark. "For that reason and for the technique used to create it, this strikingly beautiful cyanotype is a notable addition to our growing early photography collection. It is the first photogram in the collection, and important technical moment from the first decade of the medium."

"The rich and brilliant blue color of Atkins's cyanotype sets it apart from other early photographs," said James A. Ganz, curator of prints, drawings, and photographs. "The unusual color is a by-product of the light-sensitivity of iron salts, the basis for the cyanotype process. The photogram is literally a shadow cast by Atkins's fern specimen on the specially prepared paper as it was exposed in sunlight."

South America is a plate from Atkins's 1854 album, Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns, a one-of-a-kind book considered by experts to be among her most impressive works. Atkins was a pioneer in establishing the accuracy of photography in scientific illustration. Her two-volume British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843) was the first book ever to use photographic techniques for illustration. Atkins was a botanist and became interested in photography as a way of recording specimens. She used the camaraless photogram technique exclusively, and learned the cyanotype printing method directly from its inventor, Sir John Herschel. Atkins was also a colleague and correspondent of the British inventor of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot.

South America will arrive at the Clark in May.

Photography at the Clark

The Clark began building a collection of early photographs in May 1998. Since then the Institute has assembled a core collection of more than 200 photographs that date from the invention of the medium in 1839 to the threshold of modernism in the 1920s and reflect the quality and character of the Clark's collections of paintings, prints, and drawings. The invention and development of photography informed every aspect of art in the 19th century, the period for which the Clark is perhaps best known, yet the medium was generally neglected in the art market when founders Sterling and Francine Clark were building their collection. The couple collected no photographs but did amass some 500 drawings and 1400 prints that formed the basis for a curatorial department devoted to works on paper-now the department of prints, drawings, and photographs.

Photographs to date collected to date include The Angel at the Sepulchre (1869) by Julia Margaret Cameron, an important nude study (ca. 1855) by Gustave Le Gray, The Nile with the Theban Hills in the Background (ca. 1853-54) by John Beasley Greene, Woman Wearing Foxes, Bois de Bologne (1911) by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, and Jules Taschereau, Edgar Degas, and Jacques-Emile Blanche (1895) by Edgar Degas.

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is located at 225 South Street in Williamstown, Massachusetts. For more information call 413-458-2303 or visit www.clarkart.edu.

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