Thursday, February 27, 2014

Albumen printing is a Bryan Type One Experience

My friend Bryan proposes that everything we do can be put into one of three categories. A Bryan Type Zero experience is something that you never need or want to do -- be in a serious car accident, fall from a high place, etc. A Bryan Type One experience is something that it is necessary or pleasant or useful or illuminating or amusing to do once but that's enough. (Barbara says that seeing the plays "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Waiting for Godot" are each a Bryan Type One.) A Bryan Type Two experience is everything else.

Albumen printing is a Bryan Type One.

I've enjoyed learning how to do it with some skill. I'm looking forward to having these glass negatives printed in a way that is appropriate to their age. When I'm finished printing them my firm resolve is never to do albumen printing again.

There are two reasons for my resolve. First (and most positive) is that my own photographs are not well suited to the look of albumen prints. The albumen print is a beautiful, rich brown/black with a slightly soft image and veiled highlights. For my own photographs I prefer a sharper-edged, cooler image. The second reason, more pragmatic, is that I regard the albumen printing process as a pain in the neck. Allow me to describe it.

Albumen printing is a "printing out" process. That is; the image is formed on the paper by the light that strikes it -- sort of like an apple darkening after it's cut. As such it is "self-masking" -- the darker areas in the image form relatively quickly but then the darkened image itself limits how dark it will get by blocking the incoming light. A printing out process is ideal for dealing with extremely contrasty negatives (such as vintage glass plates). However, it is definitely a contact printing process since the exposure times are minutes to tens-of-minutes in sunlight (thirty minutes with my CF studio lights). This, of course, implies that the negative must be the same size as the print you wish to make. Ah! That's the first complication. I wanted to make small prints but not as small as the 4"x5" negatives. In this digital age the solution is to make a digital negative from the scans of the glass plates. I've done this for a couple of other projects so all I had to do was to get 'calibrated' on how dense and how contrasty to print them. Several further complications are not so simple to untangle.

The first step in albumen printing is to coat high-quality water color paper with an emulsion of albumen and chloride salts. Thankfully, Bostick and Sullivan stand ready to sell you pre-coated albumen paper. [As an aside, Bostick and Sullivan is one of the more pleasant companies to deal with that I've ever found. Their materials are excellent; their shipping is quick and reasonably priced, if you call with a question you will reach a human -- likely one of the co-owners or their family -- who will track down an answer.]

However, as it comes from B&S the paper is not light sensitive -- it must be sensitized and dried immediately before it is used. It is sensitized by brushing (and brushing, and brushing, and brushing) a coat of silver nitrate on the albumen-coated paper. The silver nitrate doesn't soak in -- it reacts with the chloride salts in the surface of the albumen to form silver chloride -- which is more-or-less light sensitive. After the surface of the paper becomes dull instead of shiny (by the way, this all must be done in very dim light) it must be dried with a hair dryer --- and then a second, lighter coating of silver nitrate applied and dried again. Theoretically you can keep the paper for a day or so before you use it -- not my experience; even a couple of hours is enough to visibly fog the highlights.

Now the intrepid printer puts the negative and freshly sensitized paper into a contact printing frame and put it to bask in the light for an extended time. Being an organized type of person, I established the exposure required to make a good black/brown in the darkest areas without fogging the highlights enough to bother me. Good -- now I know how to expose the negative and how to adjust the tones in the negative to produce an attractive print. Ah, if it were as easy as I make it sound.

After the exposure is completed the print must be washed thoroughly (six two-minute water baths) and then languish for 15 minutes in gold chloride toner. The toner step changes the tone of the print from a nearly foxy red to the beautiful brown/black and plates a layer of very stable gold chloride over the image. Then a quick wash and the print goes into two sequential fixer baths (five minutes each), another quick wash and five minutes in a wash accelerator (helps get the fixer out of the paper) and finally, sports fans, into the archival washer for a half hour.

As the print sits in the fixer bath it is alarming how much it appears to bleach lighter. Don't fret -- it will darken again as it dries and (slightly) more when it is heated to flatten. However, the result is that you don't know exactly how the print will look until it is dried and flattened.

This is not a process for one who craves instant gratification.

There is a sort-of Zen component to any darkroom process -- even with modern materials and processes -- but this two-hour vigil is over my tolerance. It has increased my admiration for my photographic ancestors for which this process was their everyday experience.

The few prints that I have so-far made are very satisfactory and look a lot like I hoped they would.  That said, if and when I get the fifteen or so prints for this project done and matted on unbuffered, acid-free mats (another complication is that the normal mats I use will cause the albumen prints to fade) I have no intention of starting another project that is best done with albumen.



Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Throuh a glass (negative) darkly.

A while back -- to be truthful about it, 40 plus years ago -- we stopped at a yard sale in the rural countryside near Lockport in western New York. We often stopped at a yard sale when we were driving around the quite new to us area. Everything was so old there compared to the west coast from whence we had moved.

Since we had a good sized Dodge family van at the time we even sometimes bought things when we stopped at a yard sale. I bought a small oak bookcase along with (at the insistence of the seller) the books that were in it. Most of the books were of the likes of Readers Digest condensed books. Among them, however, was an album of several hundred photogravures of England, Scotland, and Wales collected in 1903 by one Maude Grant Kent. It seems that when a well-to-do young person took the tour to Europe that collecting photogravures as souvenirs was the thing to do. With only a little detective work (some years later when Professor Google was available to help) we found that Ms. Kent lived in Chautauqua, New York.  But I digress. 

I also kept my eye open for cameras and old photographic equipment. Over the several years we lived near Buffalo I accumulated twenty or so box cameras and folding cameras of varying ages and pedigrees and a kerosene darkroom safe lamp. Most of the cameras were (of course, being so close to Rochester) Kodaks but I did catch a couple of Ansco 35 mm cameras, an Ansco half-frame 35mm camera, and on the day in question an Imperial Camera Company 4"x5" glass plate box camera.
Last fall I decided that it was time to unload a couple of good-sized boxes of photographic mathoms (mathom: an object that you don't need but is way too good to throw out). Professor Google was very helpful in dating and even estimating prices for all the cameras except for the Imperial. I could find the company -- short lived from 1898 to 1904 before being bought out by Conley View Cameras. However, I have yet to find even a mention of their 4”x5” glass plate box camera (but I know they existed -- I own one).

The Imperial has a handy compartment behind the slot into which the two-sided glass plate holder fits.  It allowed the user to transport a box of glass plates or a couple of extra pre-loaded plate holders. There was a box of unexposed glass plates in the camera but they had long since been light struck and were no longer useable. However, at the same garage sale I had also bought two boxes of glass plate negatives, doubtless taken with this camera. I looked at them briefly -- they were family pictures from a farm home, perhaps the house in the yard of which the sale was held. It's a pity I didn't take a photograph of the house. The negatives are a bit soft and of varying quality (as you would expect from a box camera) but all but a few of the 16 or so are quite printable -- maybe. I had passing thoughts of trying to print them but the thoughts passed before I did so and soon forgot about them. But last fall there they still were, languishing in my boxes of photographic mathoms, and I decided to try to print them.

Well, being in the digital age now I decided to scan these glass plate negatives and take a really good look at them. My friend, Craig, volunteered his scanner that will scan a 4"x5" negative (mine won't) and we spent a Saturday morning doing so. We also scanned three other glass plate negatives -- obviously taken with a much more sophisticated camera -- that I bought at another yard sale later. These three I had contact printed at the time on Velox paper. [For the uninitiated, Negatives as old as these are notoriously difficult to print on modern materials even if you have an enlarger big enough to carry a 4"x5" negative (I don't).  However, as late as 40 years ago you could buy Velox, a Kodak paper specifically coated for "contact printing" -- that is; sandwiching the negative directly on the surface of the paper under a piece of glass and exposing the sandwich to light. Of course, that means that the print of a 4”x5” negative is also 4”x5” -- big enough to inspect but not much else. Contact printing papers are, of course, long gone now.]

When I am in an antique (or junk) store I will often see a box of photographs labeled "instant ancestors" -- family photographs with no family, mostly without even a name. I find them sad.  Somehow I find these negatives even sadder. They were important enough that they somebody had kept them together and in the family home since the early 1900s – or maybe just never were noticed in the attic.  In either case they should belong to the great-great-grandchildren of the people shown in them -- not to some photography enthusiast that lives 2725 (I looked it up) miles away. Moreover I have no idea who these people were and not a prayer of finding out anything about them.

I decided that I am going to adopt these photographs -- print them and write the story of who these people are.  Just to make it more interesting I'm going to combine the two sets of negatives into one story.

But wait! "Print them" is another issue. In a sane world (not mine, obviously) I would make digital prints of the scans that Craig and I did -- carefully toning them to take on the look of 1900-vintage prints. Professor Google and my library of books of photographic history told me that they were likely to have been printed on albumen paper. Yes, "albumen" as in the protein in egg white and blood serum. The photograph above is a scan of an albumen print that (a little foreshadowing of an upcoming blog post) I made from one of them.