Honors Photography Students Discover History Through Albumen Prints

Photography before the digital age is hard to imagine for many young photographers whose camera of choice is often their phone.

Students in Ellen Erikson's Honors Photography IV class journeyed back to the mid-1800s to learn about the birth of print photography.

"Learning about the historic photographic processes allows the students to make a physical photographic document by hand. They spent time preparing the paper, mixing the chemistry, painting the chemistry onto the paper, exposing the image, and then developing it in the darkroom," shared Ms. Erikson. "All of the time and care often results in not only an appreciation for how easy they have it now but also a cherished physical piece of art that is not so easily forgettable."

"I thought it was cool to see how photographers created and manipulated photos back in the day," said Jack Crowley '24. "After experiencing how much effort it took to make one print, I feel grateful and appreciative about how advanced our current technology is."

Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard first announced the invention of albumen prints in 1850, while Henry Fox Talbot invented a different photography process in England. 

"The albumen sizing involves a mixture of egg whites, kosher salt, citric acid, tapioca starch, and distilled water," explained Ms. Erikson. "The chemistry to sensitize the paper is two parts. First, you coat the paper with a mixture of distilled water, ammonium chloride, and gelatin. After drying this layer, the paper is then coated with a mixture of distilled water, silver nitrate, and glacial acetic acid." 

"Eggs and photography are two words I never thought would go together," said Jack. "However, to make albumen prints we whipped egg whites to coat the paper and make it glossy." 

The paper is exposed to UV light, by the sun or a UV light box, and then washed to get rid of the excess silver nitrate. A fixing solution of sodium thiosulfate and toning in gold chloride, and a final long wash, complete the process.

"For our students, photography has always been digital. It has most likely only really existed through the phone camera and is something fast and easy," said Ms. Erikson. "The immediate results, while quite handy, can make it easily forgettable as well. It takes a special person to put a lot of care and intention into what and how they are photographing."

"My print was a street in Wayne during fall when the leaves were changing colors," said Jack. "While making the print, I was always interested in manipulating the brown tone by leaving it in the chemicals longer and shorter periods."

"I love the historical processes," said Ms. Erikson. "When I fell in love with photography it was the physicality of it all. The time in the darkroom, the magic of it, and I want my students to experience some of that!"

"The focus of Honors Photo IV is to learn the history of photography and work on projects related to the different periods covered during the first semester, all while working on a year-long personal expression project to be realized as a photobook in the spring," said Ms. Erikson.

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