52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 14: rotten egg whites usher in the modern era of photography — the Albumen Print Process
In 1850 the albumen print process was invented in France by Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard. Used almost exclusively in combination with glass plate negatives, the clarity and detail of the prints produced by this combination epitomised everything, exacting, scientific, and progressive about the modern age of industrial and scientific progress. Barring a few artistic holdouts in France and Britain, its introduction would mark the downfall of the salted paper print and the daguerreotype.
No longer was photography unpredictable, rough, or reserved to the most dedicated of enthusiasts due to its complexity. It was now accessible, repeatable, exacting, and had the capacity to render images of precise detail and breath-taking realism. At this point photography became truly a commercially driven medium.
Shortly following its introduction, the materials required to produce an albumen print would begin to be manufactured as opposed to being made by hand. This, in turn, would encourage the adoption of standard sizes and formats of films and cameras, and most importantly establish in the consumer’s eye the convention of what was to be considered a professional photograph. From the 1850s to the 1890s it was the combination of the crystal clarity of the glass plate negative and the deep brown tones and aubergine hues of the albumen print to which all commercial, studio, and private photography would be compared.
Beyond the technological evolution surrounding the manufacture of the apparatus and raw materials of the medium, there was also a shift in the modes of production of the images themselves. Great production lines, usually comprised of women at low wages, would be hired to work in vast glass houses throughout the world, printing thousands of prints a day, made from negatives captured by an ever growing fleet of now professionalised photographers.
The explosive growth of the photographic industry that took place during the advent of albumen print process was born from small photographic portraiture businesses which would expand their target consumer base in order to capitalise on the surge of tourism which accompanied the growing middle class of the period. The more business minded studio owners realised that with a portrait, a photographer only had a single client, whereas with a photographic view of a popular tourist destination, historic site, or beautifully evocative scene, they potentially had tens of thousands of clients! Practically speaking a portrait studio faced restrictions due to having to work with a fixed client base.
A studio within a given community could only serve a limited number of potential clients and these clients would not often be offering repeat business without necessitating the studio’s investment in ever changing marketing ploys. There were two solutions: raising one’s prices by appealing to a more exclusive clientele (an approach successfully adopted by George Washington Wilson of Aberdeen) or expanding your client base. Selling multiple copies of tourist views to a steady stream of visitors passing through would always prove more lucrative.
In the mid-19th century the time for photographic enterprise was ripe in Scotland, and Queen Victoria’s fascination with Scottish culture did more for the photographic industry than any technological advancement in the medium or individual marketing ploy. Her building a royal retreat at Balmoral Castle and the Royals’ passion for Walter Scott’s vision of Scottish identity, made it fashionable for all manner of moneyed English or foreign tourists to discover the country and take home souvenirs in the form of photographs. With the exponential growth in the number of photographic professionals during this period (each wanting to claim a greater share of the market), it was the ambitious commercial practitioners of the newfound art that would drive the industry and the evolution of the medium forward. As a result, the production of albumen prints in the mid to late 19th century was immense, and the legacy of this expansive commercial production lives on in historic collections across the world. The brown tones and faded edges so typical of an ageing albumen print have become synonymous with the nostalgia evoked by old photographs.