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Albumen prints - Discovery

 
For a longer history see the 'Albumen' site and particularly 'The Albumen & Salted Paper Book' by James O'Reilly which includes much of the information here, although some is also common to other sources.
 
Although the first recorded use of albumen in photographic printing came in an anonymous contribution to the magazine 'The Athenaeum' a few weeks after Henry Fox Talbot's announcement of his photographic process, the method suggested then gave only poor prints and was probably very little used. The use of albumen was also suggested in the first real textbook of photography, Robert Hunt's Popular Treatise on the Art of Photography (Glasgow, 1841). However, paper prints made in the first decade of photography (1840-50) were salted paper prints, although possibly some of them contained albumen.
 
The first practical albumen printing process was developed and published by the French photographer Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard in 1850. Blanquart-Evrard had previously produced improved calotype negatives using albumen, and his positive printing method, where the salt was dissolved in the egg white (with a little water) enabled the production of prints with greater contrast and maximum density than plain salted paper prints.
 
It is hard to distinguish many early albumen prints from salted paper prints with any certainty. They remained essentially matte prints, especially where the albumen was diluted with more than a small amount of water, although the albumen may give some slight gloss, depending on the way it was treated. Prints of greater than average brilliance from the 1850s are sometimes described as 'albumen prints' although it would probably need chemical tests to distinguish which contained albumen, and which were simply excellent examples of salted paper prints.
 
The albumen process evolved as different workers experiments in the preparation of albumen, producing even greater brilliance and also a glossy finish. Albumen has to be 'de-natured' to give a smooth coating on the paper. At first this was done simply by whipping with a fork until a smooth liquid was obtained (the froth formed was removed) but later techniques included leaving the material for some days to ferment, and heating it. These gave a smoother coating on the paper and a glossier finish.
 
The commercial manufacture of albumen paper began as early as 1854, but became an important industry in the 1860s and later, and was concentrated around the two paper mills that produced paper of suitable quality, at Rives in France and Malmedy in Belgium (then a part of Germany.) Rives and Saxe (as the Belgian paper was known) provided most of the paper used for albumen printing around the world, although some of their paper was coated with albumen in Britain, the United States and elsewhere.
 
By the 1870s, Dresden in Germany was the major site for coating albumen paper, exporting it to the world. Most of the paper was actually tinted with dyes, with a pale pink suitable for a flesh-tone in portraits being the most popular. All of the dyes used were fugitive, and albumen prints no longer show these colours, though some that were on tinted paper now have a rather dirty light buff rather than white highlights.
 
By 1865, most photographers were buying prepared albumen paper, mainly for glossy prints. This kept well, but was not light sensitive and the photographer had to sensitise it before printing by floating the sheets on silver nitrate solution, and allowing them to become dry to the touch. Prints had to me made from the treated paper within a day or so.
 
Two major aspects of photographic industry relied on albumen printing. The stereo photographs popular in Victorian parlours were, from the late 1850s until 1885 almost entirely printed as albumen prints. Cartes-de-Visite, which began as a popular craze in 1859, were also printed on albumen until the 1890s, though most later examples are carbon or gelatino-chloride prints.
 
Albumen printing declined in the 1890s, partly as photographers began to be more interested in matte surfaced prints, such as platinum prints, as well as other materials designed to give a similar appearance to these, including a new 'matte-albumen' process that combined the use of albumen and starch. This led to a brief revival of interest in albumen printing in the early years of the twentieth century. Other recently introduced printing materials included gelatine and collodion emulsion papers, as well as less usual processes including carbon printing.
 
Commercial production of glossy albumen paper ceased around 1926, and that of matte albumen in 1929. By that time most photographers had moved to gelatin based papers, either printing out papers or development papers.
 
Since then, and in particular since the 1970s, photographers interested in producing albumen prints have coated their own papers. Full instructions and practical hints are available from a number of sources, notably the Albumen and Salted Paper Book (1980) by James O'Reilly, now available on-line. 
  
 
This section is courtesy of Peter Marshall
 
  
 
  
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