The ALBUMEN process

In the late 1840s albumen came to be used in the preparation of both negatives and printing paper, in order to increase the definition.

The first development was at the negative stage. Talbot's negatives were on paper, and inevitably, when a positive was made, the imperfections of the paper were printed along with the image. The answer would be to use glass negatives rather than paper, but the chemicals would not adhere to the glass without a suitable binder. Though several substances had been thought of - even the slime left by snails - nothing proved reliable.

In 1848 a cousin of Nicephore Niépce, Abel Niépce, perfected a process which consisted of coating a glass plate with salted white of egg containing some potassium iodide. The plate was then left to dry, after which it was sensitised with an acid solution of silver nitrate. After exposure it was then developed in gallic acid.

This new process made for very fine detail and much higher quality. However, it was very slow, with exposure times ranging between five and fifteen minutes, so it was used for architectural or still life work, not for portraiture.

The development of albumen printing paper, two years later, met with much greater success; this was introduced in France by Blanquart-Evrard, brought to this country by John Mayall and made known in England by Hugh Welch Diamond. (One source, however, suggests that this process was first described at the Photographic Society by Henry Pollock.) Until then, salted paper, with its limitations of definition, had been used. An article by Shadbolt in The Journal of the Photographic Society (1855) states the problem:

"The more the picture is kept upon the surface of the paper, the more brilliant is the effect, and the more perfectly is the detail, especially that of the half tones brought out, and that anything like soaking the solutions into the paper produces a flat and unsatisfying effect."

Here the chemicals would be on the paper rather than in it, as in the case of the salted-paper process. It was a glossy printing paper which produced a very smooth surface and therefore permitted reproduction in much greater detail.

However, initially the albumen process was not seen as the ideal answer. Shadbolt, for example, continued:

"the offensive and vulgar glare which it possesses sometimes is more detrimental to pictorial effect than is counter- balanced by other advantages, and I see no reason why all the delicacy of albumenized proofs should not be retained by adopting other means to this end, and yet be free from so unpleasant a defect as the glare alluded to..."

whilst Sutton wrote:

"As a matter of taste, I extremely dislike prints on albumenized paper, and they consequently never find a place in my portfolio...",

and evidently had little time for

"those who prefer that peculiar kind of vigour and brilliancy which is exhibited by a piece of black sticking plaster, or a well-polished Wellington boot..."

To reduce the glaze, some diluted the albumen. Nevertheless the process began to catch on, and by the sixties it was in general use, and continued to be so until the turn of the century. Its success may be judged by the fact that one of the photographic journals printed recipes for using the egg yolks left over after the whites had been used for photographic purposes. It was said that one supplier of albumen paper alone was using sixty thousands eggs a day!

Albumen printing paper continued to be in general use until the turn of the century, when gelatine paper began to replace it.

Further information about this process is available in detail HERE.

© Robert Leggat, 1997.