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Anna Atkins, the Victorian botanist widely considered the first female photographer, created thousands of cyanotypes depicting white negatives of flora, often seaweed, suspended in atmospheres of Prussian blue. She made the pictures in the service of science, each one a spectral ode to the bounty of life and to what was then an innovative photographic technique. Like those of so many women of the time, Atkins’s breakthroughs fell into obscurity; she was “rediscovered” in the 1980s. The New York Public Library’s exhibition “Anna Atkins Refracted: Contemporary Works”—curated by Joshua Chuang and Elizabeth Cronin and staged in tandem with a cozier, astutely researched display of Atkins’s photograms—gathered nineteen artists informed by her legacy. While the contributors to “Refracted” ended up having little in common with Atkins (most make nonrepresentational images, prize visual poetry over science, and actually identify as artists), the show succeeded in offering an oblique survey of recent cameraless photography, much of which expressed anxieties about loss, climate change, and the medium itself.

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