Experimental Botany

Botanist Anna Atkins (1799-1871) is often cited as the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images. The title in question is Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843), for which she produced every detailed blueprint herself using light exposure and a chemical process. There are thought to be only 20 known copies of Atkins’ book, and now, over 180 years later, artists are still grappling with how to depict organic shapes and forms. Marek Piwnicki is one such contemporary creative.

Piwnicki presents an experimental body of work in which leaves, buds and stems are removed from their natural environments and placed within luminous colour fields. Some are shown to be smouldering and curling, whilst others float mid-frame. Neon pink, purple and orange combine to form gradients that obscure – and enhance – the subject matter. According to Andrea Hart, Library Special Collections Manager at the Natural History Museum, the introduction of photography heralded “a whole new opening up of how natural history and science can be presented in print.” The question now is: what happens next?


All images from Herbarium, courtesy Marek Piwnicki.