Albumen printing dates back to the 1850’s and was one of the first methods of negative-to-paper contact printing. The process gets its name from its very first step; photographers use egg whites (albumen) as the binder on the surface of the printing paper. Rumor has it, authentic instructions for albumen printing actually included soufflé recipes, so as to not let the yolks go to waste.
To do this kind of printing, you will first want to chose the paper that you want to work with. Thinner stock paper tends to work the best. I chose a high-quality drawing paper with very little texture. It is best to work in batches because the process of getting your paper ready to use is timely. I suggest cutting several sheets down to the size you want your prints to be so that you will have some extra on hand. Since you will be contact printing for this, remember that your final image will be the size of your negative, so cut your paper accordingly and leave about a three inch border to allow space for framing.
The great thing about albumen printing is that digital and film photographers alike can experiment with it. Whether printing a digital negative or shooting your own film, all you need is a negative with very flat density in the size of the print you want to make. Although some of my shots were taken with 35mm film, I scanned and printed my images onto digital negatives in order to have more control over the size. I made my negatives approximately 6×8 inches. It was also great to have control in order to edit the density of the negatives. You want them to appear less dense than what is normally acceptable.
Once I had my paper cut properly and my digital negatives printed, I coated each sheet with the albumen mixture. You will want to use a darkroom tray to carefully float the paper face-down into the egg mixture to get an even coat. I did this by pinching my paper at the corners, creating a place to hold the paper in order to lower and pull the paper in and out of the tray. Get the coat as even as possible and blow off any small bubbles that may be on the surface of the paper. Let the paper hang until the sheets are thoroughly dry. A clothes line and clothes pins work great for hang-drying.
After my paper was dry, I sensitized each sheet with a silver nitrate mixture. Recipes for both the albumen and the sensitizer can befound here. You can use the floating method again or brush the silver on the surface of the paper. Foam brushes work the best for an even application if using the brushing technique. Hang the paper up a second time in complete darkness until it’s completely dry.
You will want to use the paper within a day or so of making it. When you are ready to print, initially remain in an area of low light and put your negative emulsion-side down onto the paper. I used a hinged-back printing frame to help keep the negative in place. Then, I found an area of direct sunlight (window light works also) to expose the negative to the paper. The printing frames allow you to check your exposure one side at a time. Most of my exposures took anywhere from seven to fifteen minutes. Once I played with it enough I was able to control some of the tones very nicely. You want to stop exposing when your highlights look a tad “overcooked”. After a water rinse and two baths of non-hardening fixer, the highlights should lighten up a bit.
After I got my prints washed and fixed, toners were very fun to play with! Anything from coffee to gold can be used to change the tones of albumen prints. The natural tones of albumen prints range from dark and rich eggplant, to a faint sepia.
While shooting for this project, I chose to use vintage or timeless themes in my photographs in order to attempt to match the imagery with the process. Albumen prints are quite beautiful and the process is very hands-on and so much fun to work with. I really enjoyed the messy creation of these images and felt a strong connection with our founding fathers of photography. I highly suggest trying this technique out at least once.
– Kelly Latos