The importance of the Albumin photograph can best be summed up in this: The majority of Americas, and the worlds, history captured by the camera during the years of 1855 thru 1885 was preserved using the Albumin photographic print. First, what is an Albumin print? Simply put, it is a special piece of very fine quality rag paper which has had a thin layer of beaten and strained egg white (with either ammonium or sodium chloride added to it) applied, allowed to dry then soaked in a 10% solution of silver nitrate and acetic acid. This was then placed in contact with the negative, held in a special frame,exposed to sunlight for a varying amount of time, toned, fixed in hypo and washed,dried and mounted. The earliest photographs, from around the mid to late 1830's up to approx. mid 1840's used only paper soaked in a strong salt solution then "floated" in silver nitrate then printed out as described above, with the exception that toning was generally not done until the 1850's. More about this in a later post.
Albumin photographs made their appearance in the early 1850's and were quickly seen as a major improvement over the salt paper or plain paper print(as the salt paper print came to be called).The period of 1850 -1855 saw steady improvement in the Albumin technology and by 1855 the relative ease of use, improved tones and clairity, especially those made from glass plate negatives, made this form of photographic print "number 1". By 1870 photographers no longer were burdened with the tedious process of preparing the albuminized paper,except for the sensitization(soaking in silver nitrate solution), as there were now commercial enterprises supplying printing out paper with albumin applied. About this same time it was discovered that the addition of citric acid markedly improved the shelf life of the paper and experiments with presensitized paper began. By the 1880's this goal had been recognized, however a new type of technology was beginning to emerge which gave even better results as to tone, contrast and image permenance as well as offering substantial savings of time and money due to the ability to mass produce the presensitized paper and a relatively long shelf life as well. By 1900 the popularity of the Albumin print was waining and by the 1920's was no longer used.
The importance of the Albumin print,however, cannot be overstated. Much of the photographic documentation of history for a 40 year period, as well as portrait,casual and early photographic entertainment was preserved on this medium. You will or already have encountered them, perhaps unknowingly, and in future posts we will examine many aspects of these popular and importiant photographs. By the way, this is an open forum. Please ask questions, make comments and above all, dont remain silent. By learning about the photos you scan and work on you will gain not only a deeper respect for their historic and esoteric value but will also pick up tidbits which will help you with your digital work. The next post will be about the natural color of albumin prints,toning, tinting and applied colors. Thanks, Tom