The lost art of albumen photography
07 March · Katrina
Recently I managed to escape the workshop for a week and head to Wellington to attending the ICOM-CC PMWG Joint Meeting on photographic materials conservation. Not only was I lucky enough to sit in on a variety of seminars ranging from the conservation of early war photographs to holograms, but I also had the privilege of attending a workshop on albumen printing led by US albumen authorities Doug and Toddy Munsen from Chicago Albumen Works.
Albumen prints are aptly named for the use of albumen, a protein found in egg whites, in the process of sensitising the paper. Up until the 1850s, when albumen paper was introduced, salt paper was more commonly used for photography. Salt paper prints were made on fine writing paper that had been soaked in a diluted mix of sodium chloride (salt). The paper was then sensitised with silver nitrate. When dry, a negative was placed in direct contact with the paper and exposed to ultraviolet light to develop. The resulting image rests on the fibres of the paper. Albumen paper was preferred as the image rests on the layer of albumen on the paper surface, giving increased detail and contrast.
As advancements continued in photographic paper, negatives were also improving. Glass negatives were becoming more popular than paper negatives for the fine detail they produced when printed.
Albumen paper became so widely used that albumen prints dominated much of nineteenth century photography. During this time ‘cardomania’ spread throughout Europe and America. The ‘carte de visite’ was a small albumen photograph mounted on card. The method of taking eight separate negatives on a single plate was patented in Paris around 1860 and greatly reduced production costs. They became very popular as an inexpensive way to post photographs of friends and family members. Portraits of celebrities were also widely collected and traded as part of this trend.
As the technology developed, photography became much more integrated in everyday human activities. In many cases, albumen prints are the primary reference of many cultural and social activities of the time, therefore securing themselves a position as important historical artifacts.
While original albumen prints are a rarity those that remain can be preserved. Acidic backing boards can be removed by approved photograph conservators, and framing to conservation standards can prevent further deterioration from UV light and exposure to the elements and insects.
With the invention of more cost-effective processes, many of the early alternative print processes have sadly been lost to technology. These little relics of the past hold their own as beautiful objects and, with the right frame, can fit into any décor, contributing to the preservation of these important memoirs of our heritage for future generations to appreciate.
- Katrina Lilly, City Art
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