PhotographiConservation. Vol. 1 No. 3. September 1979. p.1

Research in Preservation of Albumen Prints Planned at RIT

James M. Reilly

Research into new preservation and restoration methods for 19th century albumen photographic prints is planned for the next two years at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York. The albumen print—in which egg white is the carrier for the photographic image—was the most common type of 19th century print. Albumen prints are characterized by brown and purple image colors and a very long tonal scale. From 1855 to 1895 it was used almost exclusively for all the purposes of photography, including everything from advertising premiums to the prints of Brady, Julia Margaret Cameron and Eugene Atget. Although the albumen print lost its predominant place among photographic papers in the mid 1890's, it remained commercially available until 1929.

Unfortunately the albumen print has proven to have some special problems with respect to image stability, and albumen prints in perfect condition are rare. About 85% of surviving albumen prints display a noticeable yellow or brownish stain in the highlights and non-image area. The remaining 15% show levels of stain that may go unnoticed unless a side-by-side comparison is made with a freshly albumenized sheet of paper. In fact, it is doubtful whether any more than a handful of 19th century albumen prints have endured without any discernible stain whatever. While low levels of stain are not a serious problem—many people regard this as part of the special appeal of albumen prints—high levels of stain do compromise the aesthetic and informational value of a photograph, and may imply that generalized fading has occurred or is impending.

Primary goals of the planned research are to pinpoint the exact causes and mechanisms of this staining process and to determine whether or not the staining process is continuing, and if so, at what rate. Preliminary research already done has indicated that the potential for very severe staining probably exists in every albumen print. Two other important objectives of the research are the determination of the optimum storage conditions to prevent further staining and fading, and the development of restoration treatments for already stained and faded prints.

The plan of the research is to make new albumen prints according to 19th century formulae and subject these modern samples to analytical and artificial aging procedures. Possible stabilizing and restorative treatments will be tested on both modern and actual 19th century prints. Another aspect of the research will be an attempt to assess the rate of staining and fading of albumen prints in the collection of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House. In cooperation with the museum's conservation staff, selected prints will be evaluated for color and density changes periodically over the next 10 years. This research program will be the first to focus specifically on the problems of albumen prints. Partial support for the research has come through a grant from the National Museum Act (Smithsonian Institution), and an application for support is pending with the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (National Archives). Rochester Institute of Technology, however, is the primary sponsor of the research, as part of a growing concern for the field of photographic preservation. Project director for the research project is James M. Reilly. Any suggestions or inquiries regarding the research on albumen prints would be welcomed by Mr. Reilly. Also, anyone wishing to assist the project by donation of deteriorated, otherwise valueless albumen prints to be used as test subjects may send such materials to:

James M. Reilly, Research Associate
School of Photographic Arts and
Rochester Institute of Technology
One Lomb Memorial Drive
Rochester, New York 14623