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.