Prior to 1850, photographic prints were created using sodium chloride salted papers that had been sensitized on a bath of silver nitrate to create light-sensitive silver chloride. One of the weaknesses of this particular technique was that the salted paper print was often dull and lifeless due to the absorption of the sensitizer by the paper’s fibers. In 1847, Claude Felix Abel Niépce de St. Victor, a career calvary officer and cousin of Nicéphore Niépce, conceived a way of using albumen (egg whites) on a glass support for the purpose of creating a photographic image. This change would lead to a glossy substrate coating for paper resulting in an image that was more vibrant and rich.
© France Scully Osterman
In 1850, a contemporary albumen paper process, a silver chloride sensitizer with an albumen binder, was devised by Louis-Désirée Blanquart-Evrard. Coincidentally, Blanquart-Evrard’s inspiration occurred at the same time when many photographers were adopting the practice of shooting very large glass plate negatives. This demanded a different and more explicit translation than salted paper could ever provide. Within the first year of his discovery the entrepreneurial Blanquart-Evrard plunged into a very successful business of mass-producing albumen images utilizing his technique. With his partner, Thomas Sutton, their enterprise was the first commercial photographic printing and publishing firm in history.
Blanquart-Evrard’s albumen technique, when used in combination with a wet collodion glass plate negative, was considered the first true and repeatable paper-based imaging system capable of yielding values and details that were commensurate with the Daguerreotype image on silver-plated copper. In its formative stages the results of the process were often flat and uninspiring. This problem was rectified by the adoption of a gold chloride toning process, which resulted in an intensification of print “color” and a variety of tonalities ranging from aubergine, purple, red, brown to black.
For over 30 years, the albumen process was “The process” and its consistency, relative to other image making systems that were known, rivaled the use of contemporary silver gelatin papers. Prepared albumen paper was commercially produced for an exploding photographic marketplace. An anecdotal bit from that era, that the Dresden Albumizing Company, in Germany, used more than 70,000 egg whites per day to meet the albumen paper demands of the public, defines that fact.
In a nutshell, the artist takes piece of fine-quality drawing paper, stationery, or vellum, prepares it with a thin layer of albumen in a solution of either sodium chloride or ammonium chloride, in combination with acetic acid and water. This “hardened” paper is then floated upon a solution of silver nitrate and distilled water. After drying, the sensitized albumen paper is placed in a contact printing frame, with a negative, and exposed to UV light. During the exposure the image prints-out.
The resulting albumen print is often a match for the most discerning alternative process artist due to its clarity and elegance. The principal reason for this clarity is the use of an albumen base support, which has an important function: it closes up the pores in the paper, much like a sizing stage in gum bichromate, preventing the sensitizing solution from being swallowed up by the paper’s fibers. Another reason for the increased clarity is that albumen is an organic sensitizer that results in greater printing speed and contrast than plain salted paper.This attribute results in the paper having a thin and saturated “skin.” It is this albumen skin, working as a colloidal vehicle, that holds the light-sensitive silver salt in suspension above the paper’s surface, providing a finely detailed image that is essentially unaffected by the paper support. The print is then washed to remove unexposed silver salts and toned in one of many toning options, fixed in a simple sodium thiosulfate solution and washed for permanence.