Albumen

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Photographic Materials Conservation Catalog
Photographic Processes
Date: Initiated January 2012
Contributors: Amy Brost, Luisa Casella, Stephanie Watkins

The Photographic Materials Conservation Catalog is created and maintained by the Photographic Materials Group of the American Institute for Conservation for the convenience of the membership. The treatments, methods, or techniques described herein are provided for informational purposes. The reader assumes responsibility for any application results or interpretation of information.

Albumen


Albumen print cross view diagram
Albumen print micrograph
Faded albumen print
Mounted albumen print with severe fading and mottling
Mounted stereo albumen print in raking light

Historical Facts
Invented: Louis Desiré Blanquart-Evrard invented albumen printing and on May 27, 1850 described the process to the French Academy of Sciences. By 1855 albumen was the dominant photographic printing process and remained so to the end of the 19th century.
Historic Practitioners: Eugéne Atget (1857-1927); Felice Beato (1832-1909); George N(orman) Barnard (1819-1902): Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879); Alexander Gardner (1921-1882); Charles Marville (1813-1879); Tim O'Sullivan (1840-1882); Linnaeus Tripe (1822-1902); Carleton Watkins (1829-1916); Baron Raimund von Stillfried (1839-1911); additional photographers listed here
Contemporary Practitioners: France Scully Osterman

Identification Characteristics
Image layer: Photolytic silver on albumen binder. May have a variety of coating materials.
Color: Monochrome. Depending on the process and toning may range from neutral to warm tones. May have applied color.
Support: Commonly lightweight rag paper.
Analysis:

Process Overview
Albumen printing is an evolution of salted paper printing using albumen from egg whites to create a lustrous surface. Sizing is always needed to keep the image on the surface of the paper, rather than embedded in the fibers. Salting makes a stronger image. The paper is sized and salted first, then it is sensitized by applying silver nitrate by brushing or floating. When dry, an image is contact-printed in a contact printing frame ("printed out"). Exposure occurs in UV light. Because the paper is dry, the negative can be placed with the emulsion side facing the sensitized paper, resulting in the expected positive image. Negatives must be high-contrast (very dense). After printing, the print must be rinsed, toned, fixed, and washed.

Conservation and Treatment

  • Albumen print deterioration was referenced as early as 1855 when The Photographic Society of London established its Fading Committee to study and improve the process permanence, particularly the cause of fading of the images. It was reported that fading was caused by: imperfect washing of the prints; use of old or insufficiently acidic hypo bath; acidity of mounting materials; excessive moisture and sulfur in the atmosphere. Recommendation was for thorough washing and toning of prints with gold chloride.
  • The image of printing out processes, such as albumen, is composed of colloidal silver that has very minute particles (as opposed to filamentary silver in developed-out processes), ranging in size from 5 to 25 micron in diameter. These particles expose more surface area and are extremely vulnerable to oxidation and chemical attack, resulting in fading and yellowing.
  • Formation of yellow staining in non-image (highlight) areas is frequent. May be caused by:
    • a combination of high humidity and temperature
    • chemical bonding of the silver to sulfur-containing side groups of the protein molecule of albumen that will react to form silver sulfide (a yellow compound)
    • Maillard or protein-sugar reaction whereby glucose in the albumen combines with amino groups of the egg protein to form a highly colored (conjugated) compound that is insoluble; studies show that this yellowing is accelerated by exposure to high humidity, high relative humidity and alkaline conditions
    • egg albumen contains a number of benzene ring-containing amino acids; upon absorption of light a benzene ring structure may be oxidized to a highly colored substance
  • Image fading is very common in albumen prints.
  • The silver particles of the image may have been physically redistributed, resulting in the formation of silver mirroring, frequently appearing along the edges of a print.
  • Poor quality mounting materials (secondary supports and adhesives) may result in staining, discoloration or fading
  • Most albumen prints are on a lightweight support that is particularly prone to structural damage such as tears, bends, creases, abrasion, and losses.
  • It is frequent to find overall cracking of the albumen binder, likely caused by variations in humidity that caused differential dimensional changes between the image layer and the support.


Housing and Storage

  • Albumen prints should be stored in good quality paper-board folders, to protect from light, dust, and handling.
  • An ideal temperature and humidity are 68 degrees F (20 degrees C) +/- 2 degree drift and 50% +/-5% variation over 24 hours.


Emergency Recovery

  • Handling wet paper can cause damage such as nicks, abrasions, and tearing.
  • Mold can develop on the prints in wet and damp conditions.
  • Albumen prints can be air dried or freeze-dried in an emergency situation. The card supports of mounted Albumen prints are likely to distort along with the photographs, however.




RESOURCES
Conservation

  • Albumen Photographs: History, Science and preservation website (Tim Vitale and Paul Messier): http://albumen.conservation-us.org/library/c20/messier1993.html
  • Albright, Gary. 1980. "The Conservation of Albumen Prints", A.LC. Preprints, pp . 1-8.
  • Baas, Valerie, Christopher Foster and Karen Trentelman. 1999. "The Effects of Four Different Wet Treatments on Albumen Photographs", in Journal of The American Institute for Conservation. Vol. 38, No.2, pp. 176-185.
  • Hendriks, Klaus B., with Brian Thurgood, Joe Iraci, Brian Lesser, Greg Hill. 1991. Fundamentals of Photograph Conservation: A Study Guide. Toronto, Ontario: Lugus Publications for the National Archives of Canada
  • Lavédrine, Bertrand (with Jean-Paul Gandolfo, John McElhone, and Sibylle Monod). 2007 (French version), 2009 (English Version). Photographs of the Past: Process and Preservation. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty Conservation Institute.
  • Messier, Paul and Timothy Vitale. 1992. "Albumen Photographs: Effects of Aqueous Treatment and Fundamental Properties", in The Imperfect Image: Photographs Their Past, Present, and Future, The Centre for Photographic Conservation: London. pp. 209-235.
  • Messier, Paul and Timothy Vitale. 1994. "Effects of Aqueous Treatment on Albumen Photographs", in Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol.33, No.3, pp. 257-278.
  • Reilly, James M. 1986. Care and Identification of Nineteenth-Century Photographic Prints. Rochester, NY: Eastman Kodak


Process and Historic Material


Contemporary Practice




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