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 Albumen Print

Early reports on albumen's photographic uses read partly like simplified cook books. J. E. Mayall, one of the most renowned of mid-nineteenth-century British photographers, wrote in 1855 that

Albumen derives its name from album ovi, the Latin name for white of egg. It exists most abundantly and in its purest natural state in eggs. It is one of the chief constituents of many animal solids and ......... Its chief characteristic is its coagulability by heat. ... The albumen of the hen's egg is the easiest of access. The eggs must be fresh, not more than five days old. They ought to be kept in a cool place. Those from the country are better than town-laid eggs, and I advise, where practicable, that the hens should have carbonate and phosphate of lime strewn about them to peck at. This enriches the albumen and renders it more limpid. Each egg must be broken separately into a shallow cup, and the yelk [sic] retained in the shell as well as the germ; then pour into a measure until the required quantity of limpid albumen is obtained.3

Following these informal comments and hints at animal husbandry, Mayall directs the photographer in the preparation of the coated paper, the sensitizing of the albumen emulsion, toning, fixing, and drying the final prints. And even though there were numerous manufacturers of this type of printing paper during the last half of the century, many manuals continued to instruct the amateur on how to prepare albumen printing paper.

The albumen print was an exceptionally convenient answer to many of early photography's problems and one of the most luxuriously beautiful photographic paper surfaces ever devised. When introduced in France in 1839, photography took the form of the daguerreotype, a relatively small albeit spectacularly detailed image on a polished, silver-coated plate of copper. The daguerreotype truly reflected—or mirrored—the world as seen through the lens of the camera obscura and recorded it on a small flat surface with a consummate finesse and precision of fact. Observers could, with the aid of a magnifying glass, examine the smallest details of architecture or landscape and were in awe of the sheer magnitude of information captured on the tiny silver plate. But the daguerreotype had its limitations. Besides being very small, the daguerreotype was exceptionally fragile; its delicate image was merely a silver-mercury amalgam film lying atop the silver plate. The image had to be constantly protected from touch and the atmosphere to prohibit abrasion and tarnishing of the silver. Furthermore, the process was fairly complicated and expensive. Most limiting, however, was the daguerreotype's inability to replicate itself. Like the modern Polaroid, the daguerreotype technique did not produce a negative that could in turn be used for printing any number of positive images. It was a unique, singular picture experience.

At the same time that Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre was introducing the daguerreotype in Paris, William Henry Fox Talbot, in Wiltshire, England, was finalizing his investigations into a distinctly different mode of capturing and presenting the camera obseura's images. In 1841, Talbot published his process, called at first the calotype and later the Talbotype.4

Fundamentally, the calotype process was a negative/positive technique whose principal vehicle was paper. A paper negative was produced in a camera, developed and made permanent or "fixed." This negative was then placed in direct contact with a similar piece of light-sensitized paper, covered with glass, and placed in the sunlight. After a certain amount of printing time, depending most upon the brightness of the light, a reversed version of the negative would appear on this second piece of paper: a positive print. In theory, any number of these positive calotypes could have been made; in practice, however, the negative usually either was damaged through handling or became opaque from too much exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays and only a few prints were produced.

The calotype satisfied at least one of the pressing needs of the photographic printing medium: it could furnish a number of exemplars of a given image on inexpensive paper. But it could not match the perfection of realistic vision that was intrinsic to the daguerreotype. Instead of a bright and precisely limned microcosm of nature, the calotype, or salted-paper print, proffered a much more subtle, softer, and more luminously suffused image. The paper itself was the principal reason. Because the photo sensitive silver salts that formed the image were literally within the paper support of the negative, it carried the visual information of both the scene it recorded and its own paper structure. When contact printed, the positive displayed both of these factors within its own fibrous and refractive support, and this further inhibited any sharpness and clarity. While the calotype was exquisitely alluring and romantically hazy in its general effect, it was not satisfactory for recording the material world with the scientific accuracy demanded of photography.

What was necessary was to be able to produce an image inexpensively and conveniently that had the incredible detailing of the daguerreotype and could be generated into a large number of reasonably identical prints. Throughout the 1840's and early 1850s, many attempts were made by photographers and technicians to achieve this end. Some, such as LeGray's waxed-paper process, which made the paper support of the negative much more transparent and less obvious in the final print, were moderately successful.5 The major problem rested with the paper support, and, as long as it was used, the resulting positive image was somewhat imprecise. The final solution was two-fold: first, to find a perfectly transparent and noninterfering support for the negative and, second, to provide a printing paper that would carry the photosensitive silver on an emulsion rather than within the paper itself. And albumen played a role in the history of each.

It proved fairly simple to obtain a negative more suitable than paper in its capacity to render detail. Glass was both perfectly clear and more than adequately flat for such a purpose; the only difficulty remaining was how to adhere the photochemicals to the glass. In 1848, Niepce de Saint Victor published his method of using albumen as an emulsion on glass; the same year another Frenchman, Louis Desire Blanquart-Evrard, announced a similar process.6 Both photographers specifically advocated the use of albumen for making negatives on glass but did not address themselves to the problem of making a commensurately hard and precise printing paper. Between 1848 and approximately 1852, other substances were suggested instead of albumen, most notably gelatin, serum, and collodion. Apparently albumen was much too difficult to handle to be practical, especially when making a large number of negative plates.

In 1851, however, the British sculptor and photographer, Frederick Scott Archer, signaled the use of collodion, a mixture of gun-cotton and ether, as a suitable adherent for glass-plate negatives

The imperfections in paper photography, arising from the uneven texture of the material, however much care may be taken in the manufacture of it, and which from its nature, being a fibrous substance, cannot, I believe, be overcome, has induced me to lay it aside and endeavor to find some other substance more applicable cable, and meeting the necessary conditions required of it, such as fineness of surface, transparency, and ease of manipulation. A layer of albumen on glass answers many of these conditions, producing a fine transparent film, but it is difficult to obtain an even coating on the glass plate; it requires careful drying, and is so extremely delicate when damp that it will not bear the slightest handling; besides these objections, the necessity of having a large stock of glass when a number of pictures are to be taken, is much against its general use. My endeavor, therefore, has been to overcome these difficulties, and I find from numerous trials that Collodion, when well prepared, is admirably adapted for photographic purposes as a substitute for paper. It presents a perfectly transparent and even surface when poured on glass, and being in some measure tough and elastic, will, when damp, bear handling in several stages of the process.7

Not only was collodion admirably suited to the making of photographic negatives, it remained the standard negative process until the fourth quarter of the century, when it was supplanted by the gelatin dry plate.

In theory, it does not matter what sort of negative is used to print on a given printing paper. During the span of albumen paper's popularity, nearly every sort of negative was used in conjunction with it: calotypes, albumen negatives, waxed-paper negatives, collodion-albumen and collodion negatives, as well as more modern gelatin dry plates were all printed on albumen paper. Of course, after collodion glass-plate negatives became the unrivaled standard for photographers, which coincided roughly with the first three decades of albuminized paper, the combination of the two became the rule. The focus of this presentation is simply on the final photographic product: the positive print. It was, after all, the printed image that was created, bought and sold, pasted into albums, exhibited, used as book illustrations, criticized, and, most basically, looked at by a public.

During the early 1850's both collodion and albumen were advanced as vehicles for printing-paper emulsions, and both were extensively used throughout this period. By the end of the decade, however, it is clear that albumen had won out, and little is mentioned of collodion paper prints afterwards. Seemingly, albumen was as good an emulsion base as was collodion, but it was also cheaper and more convenient for industrial manufacture. Furthermore, it produced a print whose color, through chemical toning partially, was elegantly and richly sumptuous. Most writers of the period, when noting albumen prints, attested to its nonpareil qualities. The British photographer, Philip Henry Delamotte, stated in 1855 that "Positive proofs taken upon paper coated with a film of albumen attain a brilliancy of effect by a softening of the glaring white of the lights, with a transparency in the shadows, which cannot be arrived at by any other means.8 Delamotte was not alone in his faith in albumen prints. Some years earlier, the French photographer, Gustave LeGray, one of the earliest, if not the first, to propose albumen-prepared printing paper, succinctly claimed, "One of the best services rendered by the albumen to photography is, without doubt, its application to the preparation of the positive paper, to which it gives a brilliancy and vigour difficult to obtain by any other method." 9

Almost every writer on the technique of making and printing on albumen paper had his own, personalized method or system. While each had his own very decided preference for certain paper stock or proportion of chemicals used, the vast number of formulae presented to the public were essentially the same. One of the clearest was described by LeGray.

Take white of eggs, to which add the fifth part, by volume, of saturated solution of chloride of sodium, or what is still better, hydrochlorate of ammonia; then beat it into a froth, and decant the clear liquid after it has settled for one night.

Pour out the liquid into a basin, and prepare your positive paper on one side only,. . . dry it and pass the hot iron over it...The paper thus prepared is very highly varnished. If you desire to obtain less gloss, add, before beating the eggs, the half or more of distilled water containing equally a fifth of water saturated with hydrochlorate ammonia. You may thus modify at pleasure the degree of brilliancy of the proof. The mixture of half albumen and half water is excellent, it gives much fineness and firmness without giving the proof a varnished appearance little artistic. You may keep this paper some time before you apply the nitrate of silver to it, as it does not spoil.

When you desire to use it, put the albumen side on a bath of nitrate of [silver], containing one part of nitrate by weight, to four of distilled water, and let it imbibe four or five minutes; then hang it by the corner to dry, and finish it as I have already described.

This paper gives much depth to the blacks, and great brilliancy to the whites. In leaving it a shorter time on the nitrate bath (about a minute), and using Whatman's paper, you may obtain a reddish purple tint very harmonious. Canson's papers, and usually all those which contain much amidine, give black tints.10

Albumen paper was not immediately adopted by the British photographic community during its first decade. The albums of the Photographic Exchange Club for the years 1855 and 1856 are a mixture of paper prints, including the salted-paper print or calotype positive, certain ferrous oxide prints as well as albumen. One writer of the period, an advocate of albuminized paper, did point out that this medium had its detractors:

Albuminized paper has been somewhat depreciated of late. I think undeservedly so. It is said, that its brilliancy is vulgar; it may certainly be carried to an obtrusive extent, but I cannot think that a slight gloss, scarcely, or not at all exceeding that given by hot-pressing plain paper, is objectionable, and there can be no question that the minuter details are better copied, and the shadows more transparent, than by any other method. . . . mere artistic effect is often a very secondary consideration in a photograph. There is another, and sometimes much more important requisite, namely, the perfect clearness and legibility of every detail, whether in light or shadow; and here the albuminized paper is without a rival. . . . in the present state of our knowledge edge, the albuminized paper process is that best suited for general use.11

It was precisely those qualities of richness of tone, transparency of the very dark areas of the picture, and, most especially, the "perfect clearness and legibility of every detail," that, by the beginning of the 1860s made albumen printing paper the principal and most popular paper on which to print the photographic image.

As with every printing process that is based upon photo-sensitive materials, there was with albumen paper the very serious problem with fading. If the prints were not completely divested of their "fixing" agent, sodium-thiosulphate, they were very likely to fade or bleach out. If they were mounted with certain kinds of paste or glue, the chemistry of the adhesive could stain the delicate silver image. Since silver prints are extremely sensitive to any chemistry that includes sulphur or its compounds, exposure to the sulphurous atmosphere of London in the 1850's and1860s was dangerous, especially as the ambient humidity could combine with the sulphur to form sulphur-dioxide, a compound quite harmful to most everything.

As early as May of 1855 the Photographic Society of London (later to be the Royal Photographic Society) established a committee "to consider and report upon the question of the fading of Positive Photographs upon paper."12 The results of the investigation, published in November, cited sulphur, the print's adhesive, and moisture as the prime causes of photographic fading. The committee's report also claimed that with proper care and conservation, silver prints could be expected to last indefinitely.

There were still attempts to find a much more "permanent method of producing and replicating photographic images during the 1860's. Unquestionably the most significant of many such methods was the carbon printing process, patented in England by Joseph Wilson Swan in 1864 and published by him in 1866. Developed in France by Alphonse Poitevin during the 1850's, Swan's improvements were immediately subscribed to internationally. The carbon print, like its near relative the woodburytype, is virtually indistinguishable from an albumen print. Its principal advantage was that it contained no silver that could fade or oxidize; rather, it was an image formed by a gelatin relief colored with carbon pigment. Its major technical disadvantages were its expense and the fairly complicated manipulations it required. Aesthetically, while its coloration and evenness of tonal gradations were similar to the albumen print, it could not compete with the albumen print's luminous radiance and brilliance. And even though a number of important nineteenth-century British photographers, such as Thomas Annan of Glasgow, Elliot and Fry of London, and Boole and Dixon of London, produced their most significant work using the carbon process, the majority of photographers continued to choose al albumen paper. Presumably, many opted for the silver print for its convenience and economy, while others refused to abandon its intrinsic beauty. The consistent popularity of albumen printing throughout the last half of the century is wonderfully summarized by Henry Peach Robinson and William de W. Abney in 1881:

Silver printing has been often doomed, but it still survives. Other processes of photographic printing have been introduced, nearly all of them having their individual merits, especially that of permanency, but all lacking in two essential qualities—ease of production and beauty of result.... The one defect of silver printing is the possibility of its results fading; but surely it is better to be beautiful, if fading, than permanent and ugly. It is better to be charmed with a beautiful thing for a few years, than be bored by an ugly one forever.... Carefully prepared, and properly kept, a silver print should be as permanent as any other.13

Albumen printing's particular beauty was and still is directly related to its extremely smooth and hard surface, its slightly translucent and opalescent luminosity, and its soft and mellow tonal coloration. Its darkest areas, instead of blocking up into opaque masses, are warm and contain an almost unbelievable amount of shadow details. The highlights are creamy, nearly the subtle hue of eggshell, no pun intended. The warmth and radiance of such prints are their fundamentally distinguishing characteristic. And while the actual color of the albumen print can vary considerably—from a cold red-violet to an extremely warm reddish brown or sepia—the overall color of most is between these extremes. Much of the print's final coloration depends on the chemical toning applied after "fixing"; some of the color is also determined by the actual paper stock and its own chemistry. The most popularly accepted papers were usually the French Canson Feres, Saxe, and Rives, and the British Whatman's. Canson's, for example, gave black tints to the prints, while the more neutral Whatman's produced a reddish purple tone.14 With its capacity for a full tonal range, from very dark to bright lights, its luminosity and its rich coloration, the albumen print was only superceded by a few, late nineteenth-century gelatin printing-out papers, such as the Aristotype. But for most of the last century, it remained supreme.