Amanda Rataj is a photo-based artist who graduated in 2010 from OCAD University in Toronto. She became fascinated with albumen printing in a third year class on historical photographic processes taught by professor Barbara Astman. She brought examples of her albumen work. The prints are all on hand-made paper which is more tactile than traditional paper. She has written two articles for PhotoEd magazine including one on Albumen Printing in issue 25 (spring 2009). Amanda’s work has been exhibited in galleries – most recently at Xpace this past January. She is a member of Gallery 44 and teaches workshops on albumen printing.
We have all seen albumen prints at shows and in antique shops. They are the brownish toned prints mounted on heavy cardboard. Albumen prints were popular for some 30 to 50 years after their invention in 1849. Wet-plate negatives gave a sharpness and tonal quality that nicely matched albumen materials which led to the mass production of the carte-de-visits, cabinet cards and other styles of the era.
The primary ingredients for albumen printing are egg whites (albumen) which serve as a binder and silver nitrate as the sensitizer. Separately, neither ingredient is light sensitive. But once the silver nitrate touches the albumen – or any organic material, like skin – it reacts with the salt in the binder creating light-sensitive silver halides.
Amanda uses formulae from the “Book of Alternative Photographic Processes” by Christopher James. She begins with a 500ml solution which calls for 2 1/2 dozen eggs (egg whites only). Rather than crack all those eggs and be left with a lot of yolks, she uses prepackaged cartons of egg whites (in the 1800s the albumen solution was sold commercially). She adds glacial acetic acid (really, really strong vinegar) and pure sodium chloride (table salt without the additives) to the egg whites in distilled water.
It sounded like we had segued into a cooking class when Amanda was describing how she had to whip the egg whites to a “stiff to soft” condition (like making meringue for a Lemon Pie).
After the mixture settles overnight, it must be strained. A coffee filter works great. The solution is then set aside for at least a week to “mature” – Amanda recommends a month. During that time the acetic acid breaks down the molecules leaving a liquid that looks gross and smells disgusting.
Next the solution is filtered twice through cheese cloth as it is really moldy after sitting for a few weeks. The filtered solution is poured into a glass tray and after making sure there are NO bubbles, the printing paper is floated on top of the solution, coating it evenly with albumen. It takes only a few minutes to make a good coating and this step can be done in daylight as the mixture is not yet light sensitive.
Amanda makes the paper base as well, an art she learnt at OCAD. She cautioned that the paper is very delicate when wet. Traditionally, albumen prints use very thin, smooth paper. The drying albumen coating cause an extreme curl. To counteract this curl, albumen prints were glued to cardboard cards. She emphasized that it is best to use a good quality white cotton-based paper as the highlights in the finished albumen print are the colour of the base paper.
In addition to binding the sensitizer to the paper, the albumen acts as a sizing, smoothing the paper surface and creating a glossy shine. You can coat the paper a second time after hardening but even after one coat the surface is very glossy.
When ready to print, the albumen surface of the paper is once again floated on the surface of a solution – this time it is a silver nitrate solution. It takes about three minutes to properly sensitize the paper. The sensitized paper must be dried in the dark. Once sensitized, the paper MUST be exposed and developed within five to six hours. Beyond that time the paper loses much of its sensitivity and contrast. Amanda uses a 12% solution of silver nitrate to sensitize the paper although her reference book by James suggests a 15% solution (as the silver nitrate concentration increases there is a risk of crystal needles forming on the paper surface).
The sensitized albumen paper is contact printed and developed out using sunlight or an artificial UV source. Contact printing demands a negative size matching that of the desired print. Amanda prefers 4×5 negatives since this size allows the use of a more portable camera than the 8×10 negatives which she occasionally makes. She develops her negatives in Ektol at 1.5 times strength to get the necessary punch (contrast) to match the naturally flat albumen paper.
Printing takes an average of nine minutes (six to fifteen minutes depending on negative density, paper sensitivity, and the choice of light source). The negative and paper can be partly separated to check the progress. Development is complete when brassing begins to show on the highlights. After the print has fully developed, it must be washed and fixed twice in sodium thiosulphate. The print is then put in a hypo clearing bath and another wash. Without proper fixing and washing the prints will slowly continue to develop to a dark brown colour.
Albumen prints were traditionally toned with either gold or selenium. The toning is done after developing and before fixing. Gold toning gives better results. Toning improves the archival quality of the print and also changes its colour. Many variables in the process affect the print’s colour making it difficult to determine what steps will produce a desired colour.
After hearing Amanda’s story, we realized that albumen printing is definitely a process for the patient. It takes some two hours once the binder, paper and sensitizer solutions are at hand to make a finished print!
Amanda showed us a couple of quick-time movies she made by combining albumen printing and stop-motion filming. She used traditional 35mm film shot with a motor drive. The tiny negatives were then contact printed as usual to make tiny albumen prints. The prints were scanned and and animated in a computer. Her two examples, which show subtle motion, were projected enlarged to life size in her Xpace exhibit.
Amanda wrapped up with a Q&A session and inspection of the prints she created. She emphasized that one of the attractions of 19th century albumen printing in this age of lightening fast digital photography, is the ability to manipulate the medium to create a unique piece of art.