Albumen Photography's Place in History
Albumen prints were the new photographic technology in the middle of the 19th century. This period was squarely within the European Industrial Revolution and about 25 years after the discovery of light sensitive materials by Niepce and Daguerre.
Large scale use of albumenized paper began in 1850 and extended through 1890, although craftspersons (and hobbyist) still make excellent albumen prints today. In the Industrial Revolution, technologies and materials were being actively explored and developed at a blistering pace. This is analogous to our current digital revolution, allowing for today's massive increase in communications abilities.
Beginnings of Photography, Before Albumen Prints
Joseph Nicéphore Niepce, a French technologist showed (1822-26) that an image could be fixed by light (bitumen on pewter plate) and that multiple paper copies (etchings) could be made from a light-fixed image. Niepce was trying to find a way to transfer images from paper to a lithography plate (his business) after his artistically talented son, who did the drawing, went off to fulfill his military service obligations. Developing a light-based etching process was a monumental leap forward in technology. While the images were not made in a camera and were contact prints of a sort, they could not be said to be either high resolution or possess a significant tonal range. Better resolution in the photo-based printing process would follow 25+ later (1852) when Talbot invented the printing screen by superimposing a thin, finely woven, cloth between a leaf and the sensitive plate. The screen provided by the weave introduced greater tonal range to the light-based etching process. In 1829, Niepce entered into an information sharing arrangement with Daguerre.
Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre developed a high-precision light-fixed image in 1837/8: the Daguerreotype. This technology had very high resolution and broad tonal range, but had two unfortunate drawbacks, 1) only one image per exposure and 2) a very narrow viewing angle.
Henry Fox Talbot developed paper-based photographic images (1839) over a six year period from 1833 to 1839. Talbot called them Photogenic Drawings because the technological concept grew out of his drawings using Wollaston's camera lucida at Lake Como. Later they were known as Talbotypes and Calotypes. Talbotypes had drawbacks such as low resolution (oil soaked paper is not as transparent as glass) and the tonal range was narrower than the Daguerreotype.
Albumen Prints Invented
Désiré Blanquart-Evrard developed Albumen Prints in 1850 while using Talbot's techniques, building upon Talbot's work. Albumen Prints quickly became the print medium of choice because of their fine resolution and extended tonal range. Commonly used to make single prints from negatives, they were also used for reproducing book illustrations (identical multiples) and were advertised as prints "devoid of metallic glare," from which, high resolution multiples could be made in an "unlimited extent with very little expense." Both professionals and amateurs used Albumen Prints with great ease and success. Until the 1850's, professional photographers used the high resolution medium of Daguerreotypes while amateurs used the low resolution medium of Talbotypes/Calotypes. The phenomenal success of Albumen Prints was due to a technological leveling of amateurs and professionals. This is similar to what is going on in digital imaging world today.
Negatives printed onto albumen paper were either paper-based Talbotypes/Calotypes or Collation Wet-Plate negatives. Collodion (wet) negatives were made workable by F. Scott Archer (English) in 1848 and dominated photography between 1855 and 1881. They quickly displaced paper negatives because of their high resolution due to the glass carrier. Collodion Wet-Plate negatives were made as needed, on the spot, and were still "wet" when loaded and exposed in the camera.
Albumen Prints were printed from Collodion negatives in wooden printing frames commonly exposed to direct sunlight. On a bright overcast day, the exposure was about 1-5 minutes. The print was removed from the frame and processed in lit room; it was common from the prints to be mounted after processing.
Prior to Niepce, multiple images were printed from hand carved, engraved, etched, or drawn lithographic stones back to the early 15th century in the West and 2nd century in the East. Drawing with a stylus or ink nib inside a camera obsucra or lucida extends back to the second half on the 16th century, allowing skilled workers to produce "handmade" multiples. Multiple drawings would be traced from the same image projected on the focal plane (paper) of the camera. Their similarity was based on the skill of the draftsperson.
Printing multiples from the same woodblock can be traced to 6th century China but the earliest known woodblock prints are from 8th century Japan. Woodblock printing is the earliest analog to photography.
Creating a multiple image by pulling a rubbing from a surface-carved column or printing with a seal can be traced back to 2nd century China largely because the Chinese eunuch Ts'ai Lun invented paper in 105 AD and the Chinese had water-based inks from the 2500 BC. The invention of movable type is now credited to a Chinese alchemist Pi Sheng between 1041-48 (one set of characters made from hardened clay and glue). The Chinese also developed carved wood type in 1313.
Fifteenth century European metal workers (founders, die-cutters, gold & silversmiths) were familiar with casting metal into dies or impression from dies. Metalographic printing plates, developed in 1430, are lead-alloy plates pulled from die impressed pages composed in clay (or non-alloyed lead) from single letter dies. They are probably the forerunner of typography. Johannes Guttenberg is currently credited, in 1450, with developing typography, which brings together a printing press and identical lead-alloy type for printing religious text to spread the word of God; a major cultural driving force. European printing of multiple images, pulled from an engraved metal plate, is credited to Coster starting with his experiments in 1423. Playing cards and religious flyers were the common output.
When the capture of images made with light was discovered by Niepce in 1822, multiple, almost identical (depending on exposure and processing), images could be made for the first time. The possibility of creating images without the rigorous training of a draftsman, captured the imagination of the technologically inclined during the Industrial Revolution from the working person, to the Sunday nature lover and the aristocrat: male and female. Albumen Prints made the process of producing high resolution, broad tonal range images, in multiples, simple and economical.
Today, "digital image files" complete the evloution of the "creation of multiples" goal. They allow perfect copy to be made from any generation of the digital file. The drawback is that the file has to be migrated to new storage media before the storage format is obsolete or fails.