Photograph Identification Guide
by David Rudd Cycleback


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Late 1800s cabinet card with albumen print affixed to a cardboard mount. The albumen print has the typical soft, sepia tones.

Popularly used: 1850s-1890s, though rare examples are found that date to the early 1900s.

While there were other photographic processes in the 1800s, the albumen print was by far the most common form of paper photograph. Most 1860s-90s paper photographs are albumen. Even non-collectors associate horse-and-buggy and Old West images with the soft, sentimental tones that were produced by the albumen process.

Except for modernized versions used by a few advanced art photographers, the albumen process is as obsolete as the Model T car. It hasn't been used commercially for nearly a century, having long ago been replaced by more advanced technology.

During its 1800s century heyday, the albumen process was used by a wide range of photographers and for a wide range of photos. It was used by famous photographers and unknown small town studios. It was used to make the priceless photo hung today in a Paris or New York museum and many of the photos in you or your neighbor's family collection. This means that by studying the cabinet card of your great great uncle or that $2 cabinet you bought at a flea market, you are also studying the qualities of the thousands dollar 1880s Joseph Hall baseball cabinet card and the Robert E. Lee Civil War portrait.

The albumen process was time-consuming and difficult compared to modern photography. Most practitioners were well-trained professionals with a working knowledge of chemistry. Except for a few technically gifted and wealthy hobbyists, there were no amateur photographers as in the 20th century.

The process required a unique kind of chemically treated paper that was mostly imported from France and Germany. Photography is a chemical process and the photographer couldn't use any old writing paper he got at the local dime store. Only a few factories in the world made albumen paper. This is lucky for us today, because this albumen paper has distinct qualities that are usually straightforward to identify.

One of the distinct qualities of 1800s albumen prints is that they are on super thin paper. The paper was so thin and delicate that the prints had to be mounted. This means that the photographic print was pasted to a heavy backing. Usually the backing is a sheet of cardboard, but albumen prints can also be found mounted in or on books, programs and other items. The mount is typically larger than the albumen print. The picture at the beginning of this chapter clearly shows how the albumen print was affixed to a larger cardboard mount.

Albumen photographs were made in a wide range of sizes and styles, often related to the era that they were made. The mount can range from 1x1 inches to over 20 x 20 inches. The typical sizes are the carte de visite or CDV (a bit bigger than a driver's license) and the cabinet card (a larger version of a the CDV). It was expensive and difficult to make large albumen photos. The largest sizes, say around 15x15" and larger, were usually made for special occasions. A mammoth baseball team photo may have been displayed in the club house, town hall or been given to a player or manager.

For all sizes, the mount is typically rectangular, but can come in other shapes. The mounts come in a variety of colors and with different text and designs. The color and design help the historian assign a general date, as different styles typically came from specific eras.

The albumen images are usually well aged. This includes the common sepia or yellowish tone, often along with fading of the image details in areas and foxing (brown or reddish age spots). Particularly due to different storage, the severity and type of aging will vary. For collectors, albumen photos are best stored away from light, excessive heat and humidity. An example of excessive heat is storing them next to a radiator. When originally made, albumen images were not sepia but closer to a grey. You will sometimes find examples that were well stored and retain these colors. Albumen images are usually glossy.

Many albumen images have very fine web-like pattern of cracking. This is often seen up close with the naked eye. Sometimes a normal magnifying glass or loupe is needed. The cracking, which does not appear on all albumen prints, can be throughout the entire image or in sections.

One of the keys to authenticating albumen prints is examining the image area under a microscope, preferably of 50x or better power. Unlike with the later gelatin silver prints or common modern color photos, the paper fibers can be seen on the albumen print. It takes some practice, but with experience it's not difficult to view the paper fibers with a microscope of 50 or more power. When judging the authenticity of an expensive albumen photograph I always take my magnifying glass and look for paper fibers in the image.

There are some other scarcer types of photographic prints where the fibers can be seen. These don't have the same colors or other image qualities of albumen prints. Further, all of these are antique or high end processes. The salt print, where the fibers can be seen, was used before the albumen prints. The scarce platinotype, where the fibers can be seen, was largely discontinued before WWII. So, one way or the other, if you see the paper fibers on your 19th century photograph, it's a good sign.

Though rare, it is possible to find 1880s albumen prints that are pink (by far the most common), blue, green, yellow and other bright colors. The process to add dye to the albumen paper was invented at this time. This dye process often left underdeveloped or otherwise less than stellar images.

Some albumen prints have a distinct effect called 'silvering.' Silvering is when it appears as if the silver has come to surface of the image. If it exists, it is more noticeable at the edges and in the dark areas of the image, and when viewed at a specific angle to the light. If you change the angle of the photo to a light source, the silvering will become stronger and darker, sometimes disappearing. It can range in intensity.

Sometimes it is only revealed under close examination when holding the photo nearing a 180 degree to a light. Silvering appears on some other types of photographs, most notable the gelatin silver. Important for collectors, silvering is an aging process. In simple words, a photograph with natural silvering wasn't made yesterday.

Foxing, age spots and overall yellowing common to albumen prints. Foxing is often heavier than this, and can appear on the mount as well.

Albumen paper is extremely thin. The above image also shows a close-up example of foxing.

Early 1900s gelatin-silver prints (see next chapter) are often mistaken for albumen prints. Early gelatin silver prints often have an albumen-like sepia tone and can be mounted to a cardboard backing. Except for some early circa 1890s examples, the gelatin-silver print is identified as the paper fibers in the image cannot be seen under the microscope.

If the photograph is dated to the early 1900s by the image subject or mount style, the photograph probably is gelatin-silver, not albumen.

In the 1890s, albumen prints and gelatin prints were roughly about equal in popularity. For a photo you are certain is from this period, it is not a big deal if you cannot tell if the print is albumen or gelatin silver, as there will likely be no difference in value.

Albumen prints are also sometimes mistaken for the earlier and much rarer salt print.


Modern Albumen Prints

Today, a few artists and hobbyists make modernized versions of the albumen print. These are easy to distinguish from 1800s version. Since the photos are made recently and often sold by the proud photographer, the photos are usually correctly dated. The modern albumen prints are on much thicker paper, lack the aging of the old versions, are usually not mounted and will often fluoresce brightly under a black light (see chapter 25). The modern artists like the tone and techniques of the old albumen prints, but are not trying to make prints that will be mistaken for 1800s prints. In particular, they've modified the chemicals and paper used so the photos don't have the 1800s aging and deterioration problems. Their object is to duplicate the tones of the albumen print, but not the foxing, fading and discoloration. Modern albumen prints are much rarer than the 1800s versions and are the artistic types of photos you will find in art galleries and museums, rather than the eBay sports memorabilia categories

Summary of Important Qualities of the Early Albumen Print

* Almost all were produced in the 19th century. A few examples can be found in the early 1900s. Most 1800 paper photographs are albumen prints.

* Due to the delicate nature of the paper, albumen prints had to be mounted, meaning the albumen print had to be pasted to a heavy backing like a sheet of cardboard.

* Examples larger than the cabinet card are scarce, the larger the more limited in number. Examples around 20x20" exist but are rare.

* Albumen paper is very thin.

* Images can be found in grey, but are typically sepia in tone, often with foxing, areas of fading and other wear.

* Images are often glossy

* Many have a very fine web like pattern of cracks in the image surface. Can often be viewed with naked eye, but sometimes a normal magnifying glass is needed.

* Some images have silvering

* Under microscope, paper fibers can be seen in image. If the paper fibers can be seen, that is one of the strongest signs that the 19th century photograph is genuine. main

(c) david rudd cycleback, all rights reserved


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