The New York Public Library’s exhibition on the pioneering works of botanist and photographer Anna Atkins will appeal to an unusually broad set of visitors, presenting content of interest to the horticulturalist, the photography enthusiast, and the bibliophile alike. But, as it is staged by a library, Blueprints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins delivers fully on the lattermost theme, delving deeply into editions, volumes, material and construction techniques of the various iterations of Atkins’ pioneering work Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843).
However, this exhibition by no means disappoints the viewer who approaches this work as art, as the cyanotype (the method in which Atkins photographed her algae specimens, which uses early photography chemicals of a vibrant blue that react when exposed to light) contains many elements of a powerfully suggestive image. Algae, of course, is nothing glamorous, but the way these water-bound forms seem to float eerily forward on a Prussian blue ground begs to be seen as art. However, Atkins, who was trained by her father from her teenage years as a chemist, was not particularly after beauty, but was rather more interested in scientific classification.
This type of exhibition, which bridges the increasingly unbridgeable gap between the arts and the sciences, has some precedence in the landscape of New York exhibitions. Last year, the Grey Art Gallery at NYU presented an exhibition of neurologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s drawings of nerve endings. Cajal was a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in understanding the brain’s cellular structure, but the Grey’s exhibition laid his work out as more than science, but as aesthetics. These exhibitions, and others like them, beg certain questions about their purpose and effect. What does it mean to look at science from the perspective of art? How should we look at the display of scientific drawings or images? Is there danger in aestheticizing science, or does it transform something possibly dense into something accessible?
This exhibition seems to stave off the temptation to answer these questions, as the curators stick mostly to interpreting Atkins’ work historiographically, presenting a thorough portrait of Atkins’ scientific milieu. Any of us who visit this exhibition and find ourselves hankering for the artistic take can have that need fully satisfied on the library’s third floor in a companion exhibition, Anna Atkins: Refracted, a group show of work inspired by Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes, which have somewhat of a cult following among artists.
The work in the third floor corridor ranges across techniques, but primarily focuses on what is most seductive about Atkins’ work: the almost magical quality of the cyanotype, which uses no equipment but light exposure to create these eerie images. Many of the artists in this show create the conditions for objects to be acted upon, but do not act upon them themselves. That is, these artists let light do most of the making, which results in a show as subtle as it is powerful. (For example, Penelope Umbrico’s work consists of high resolution scans of disassembled screens which capture sunlight refracted through them, thus exposing the invisible.)
Most striking of the twenty artists on display was Alison Rossiter’s work, in which she has exposed various types of photographic paper from across the 20th century to light, which as a result have darkened according to their chemical makeup. She then arranges these papers in groups she calls “compendia.” Because every paper reacts to light differently, what results are rectangles that show their minute chemical subtleties in dramatic visual ways, revealing themselves as material imbued with time.
Equally powerful, but in a much more immediate way, is Ulf Saupe’s work,* which finds its inspiration in the watery effect associated with the cyanotype. The artist suspends what look like jellyfish (but turn out to be plastic grocery bags) at the center of his photographs, washed in electric blue pigments. These images eloquently communicate the effect of pollution in our oceans today by means of a one-hundred-eighty-year-old medium.
Whether Atkins’ work is an achievement of art or of science and technology (though I don’t see why it cannot be both) these shows prove her legacy is slowly emerging. When it comes to recognition, Atkins knew it best: all exposure takes is a little more light.
*Male artist alert! But it’s okay for our purposes here at < 1/2 because this work was inspired by a female artist. This is what we’re after, right? Increasing the recognition women artists get so that they are able to influence all artists, not just the female ones?
New York Public Library
Until February 17, 2019
New York Public Library
Until January 6, 2019