EFFECTS OF AQUEOUS TREATMENT ON ALBUMEN PHOTOGRAPHS
PAUL MESSIER, & TIMOTHY VITALE
The aqueous surface cleaning, unmounting, and immersion of albumen prints are among treatment options used in the craft practice of photographic conservation. The association of albumen photographs with water is a natural one. Albumen photographs are born of water. Photographic processing has always involved the use of aqueous solutions that are followed by prolonged water baths. In particular, the washing of albumen photographs has traditionally been associated with preservation. Nineteenth-century albumen printers were very aware of the link between image permanence and extensive postprocessing washing in clean water. During manufacture, albumen photographs often go through several cycles of wetting and drying. Not only are they thoroughly washed, but prints are fixed and toned in aqueous solutions.
In the 20th century, paper conservation practice has often involved the washing of degraded or discolored paper artifacts. After bathing, paper artifacts are often perceived to be whiter, stronger, and healthier (Vitale 1992a). As the field of photographic conservation evolved, it naturally adapted techniques and approaches from both paper conservation and photographic processing.
Evaluation of aqueous treatment of albumen photographs is not new. Alice Swan (1981) made several observations on the detrimental effects of water on albumen photographs. Swan asserted that albumen prints treated with water exhibited an increase in albumen layer cracking, but she did not quantify the phenomenon. She also expressed concern that aqueous treatment seemed to cause an overall “contraction” of the albumen (1981, 276). Although alarming, the aqueous treatment of albumen prints is still (Moor and Moor 1991), with some exceptions (Hill 1991), a traditional technique that remains an accepted practice in photographic conservation.
The perceived benefits of aqueous treatment are: (1) aqueous surface cleaning is a quick and effective means for removing dirt and accretions; (2) aqueous immersion is often a reliable method for removing albumen photographs from degraded, damaged mounts; and (3) the washing of albumen prints may reduce the presence of degradation products in the paper support and may decrease the yellow-brown discoloration in the albumen layer.
The purpose of this research was to assess the aqueous treatment regime and determine its benefits and risks. Prior to treatment, print color, gloss, and crack width and population were quantified for 20 albumen photographs. The photographs were then treated by aqueous surface cleaning. Color, gloss, and crack width and population were remeasured. The photographs were immersed in water and dried. Again measurements of color, gloss, and albumen layer crack width and population were made. It should be noted that the treatment protocol outlined in this paper is not necessarily standard; several alternative techniques exist.