ODE TO ANNA | ART PREVIEW
Anna Atkins, the first woman photographer, died 150 years ago, in June 1871. To mark this occasion, Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre in Cwmbran are holding an exhibition, Ode To Anna, featuring work by women photographers which engages with, and is inspired by, Atkins’ photography.
Since the invention of photography in the middle of the 19th century there has been continuous debate about what the practise is for. Is it art? Visual memory? A scientific tool? Historical document? Alongside these perennial debates about what photography is are contemporary discussions about who it is for, who it represents, and how it does so. Atkins’ revolutionary work sits somewhere in the middle of these questions.
Her father was a famous scientist, and she received an “unusually scientific education for a woman of her time”. She combined this scientific training with skilful application of then-new photographic methods to create her images. For Photographs Of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, Atkins used the newly invented cyanotype process, which creates photographic prints in a distinctive shade of blue, to create contact prints of dried algae. These photograms were then bound into what is now considered the first photobook; although it was intended primarily as a scientific work, it has obvious and deliberate aesthetic qualities, shown by Atkins’ skill in arranging her subjects, and also has value as an historical document. In 1842, at the very beginning of photography, Atkins’ work was generating questions about what the value of photography is.
Ode To Anna is an exhibition by Phrame Wales, a photographic collective that champions active and emerging female photographers in south Wales. Featuring the work of Molly Caenwyn, Savanna Dumelow, Faye Griffiths, Kate Mercer, Sharon Magill, Jane Nesbitt, Tess Emily Seymour, Catherine Yemm and Patricia Ziad, its content engages with Atkins’ photography: work centred on botanical subjects, work which explores the role of women in photography and its history, and images created through the use of alternative photographic processes such as chemigrams and cyanotypes.
We are constantly surrounded by digital images and it has never been easier to make a photograph. As a reaction to this saturation, many photographers are turning to the diverse methods of chemical photography, or combining traditional and digital processes, in order to create work that is unique and thought-provoking. The images in this exhibition seek to link the history of photography, and the work of one photographic pioneer, with its present. And by engaging with that history, it may be that this exhibition will also point to some possible future directions for photography.
Ode To Anna, Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre, Cwmbran, Sat 24 Apr-Sat 19 June. Admission: free. Info: 01633 483321 / here
words DAVID GRIFFITHS