Robert A. Sobieszek. British Masters of the Albumen Print: A Selection of Mid-Nineteenth-Century Victorian Photography. International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House & The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1976
The most common printing paper used for making photographic images during the last century was based on an entirely prosaic medium—egg whites. From the early 1850s to the turn of the century, albumen printing papers were customarily used by both amateur and professional photographers. Such paper could either be made by the photographer in the darkroom or be purchased commercially. In 1862, a British firm used half a million eggs per year in the manufacture of this paper, and in 1894 the Dresdner Albumin Papier Fabrik, A.G., advertised the use of some 60,000 fresh eggs a day.1 The leftover yolks were usually directed to large-scaled bakeries or other industrial uses, but a sizeable proportion were unquestionably discarded.
The albumen print was an entirely international mode of printing photographic images in the nineteenth century. As a printing technique or vehicle, with its intrinsic qualities and charms, it has never been examined as, say, nineteenth-century etching and lithography have been. Other photographic techniques such as the daguerreotype and the calotype have been isolated and studied; the specific sense and physical presence they give to pictures are understood and appreciated. Similarly, turn-of-the-century photographic processes such as gum-bichromate and platinum have also been critically studied. The purpose of the exhibition, "British Masters of the Albumen Print," shown at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in 1973, as well as this presentation of these and other images is to select discretely as varied a range of important and representative albumen prints as would be historically relevant. At the same time, it was recognized that this country had never mounted a major exhibition of nineteenth-century British photography. Since Britain witnessed what was perhaps the most extensive use of the albumen print by both its professional and its amateur photographers and since Victorian photography reached certain heights of artistic and cultural achievement unknown to other countries, it seemed appropriate to combine motives and to present a survey of British albumen photography. A third rationale was to take such an opportunity to research and publish a selected introduction to the museum's holdings of nineteenth-century British photography, one of the largest collections of its kind.
The years 1850 to 1880 represented in Great Britain a period of complexity and enthusiasm in science, art, and society. For photography the years of fundamental discovery were past. Photographers could with relative ease and assurance now concentrate on the art of picture-making and the craft of printing without inventing each step along the way, as had the earlier pioneers. The state of the art was such that one critic, commenting in 1856, could dispassionately claim that
During the last year or two, there have not been any considerable advances in the science of photography, but the art has been greatly improved. . . . preparations required can be purchased ready for use—and it is almost impossible for the veriest amateur to fail of obtaining a picture.2
Beginning in the 1850s, ranks of professionals grew in every major city, and amateurs, both men and women, took up the art in unprecedented numbers. The principal photographic imperative was documentation. The vast majority of photographs produced during this period were clearly made with no other intent than to record a person's likeness, a particular site or piece of architecture, or a given event. That so many of these simple "topographic" images were invested with as much artistry and feeling is notable. At the same time, the eminently British idioms of the pastoral landscape and poetic figure were also found represented on sheets of albumen. For many amateur photographers, the ease of photographic techniques meant a chance to fashion personally a body of pictorial sentiment. They could now capture for always a quiet, picturesque beauty felt by many of them to be threatened by civilization's progress. Both the professional documentation and portraitist as well as the romanticizing amateur brought to their pictures the same sensibilities. They all valued clarity of fact, realism of depiction, poetic sentiment and the haunting charm of the stilled transience of the photograph. And the vast majority of them clearly favored the use of albumen printing paper.