The Role of Paper: a short essay concerning the relevance of photography on albúmen paper in the XIX century
Joaquim Marçal Ferreira de Andrade
Origins of photography
The decades of 1820 and 1830 mark the emergence of the first photographic processes, after a long period of gestation that lasted some centuries. The almost immediate expansion of photography in global terms, its assimilation by different cultures and its rapid appropriation by the most distinct fields of knowledge show us that we are before a phenomenon that deserves to be included in the gallery of the great inventions in the history of humanity. According to William M. Ivins, Jr. “ (…) it is through photography that art and science have had their most striking effect on the thought of the average man of today. From many points of view, the history of techniques, of art, of science and of thought can be quite properly and cogently divided into their pre and post photographic periods”.
Photography is born of the longing for a mechanical representation, supposedly more objective, of visual reality. Its origins in the positivist Europe of the XIX century, where almost all of the precursors operated, who utilized the camera obscura and the camera lucida to “copy” what they saw, has been intensely researched and discussed in recent decades. Much is also known about the contribution of those who, during the previous three centuries – denominated the period of pre photography – accumulated practices, observations and discoveries in the fields of physics and chemistry, the sum of which culminated in the emergence of photography; thorough various researches who simultaneously investigated distinct processes in distinct localities.
In this respect, we will start by remembering the experiments of the Englishman Thomas Westwood, assisted by Humphry Davy and who produced, in 1802, contact-copies of leaves and other objects on paper sensitized with silver nitrate without however, discovering a formula with which to fix such images. Later on, we should remember the Frenchmand Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce, an expert in lithography and inventor of a reproduction process denominated heliography – that made possible the multiplication of images through a system very similar to other engraving processes then known – and author of the first image captured through the use of a camera obscura, equipped with a lens. Obtained in 1826 in his native town, Chalon-sur-Saône, this image was the result of the hardening of Judean bitumen by the action of light – different from the darkening of the photographic emulsions based on silver salts, making possible the development of photography itself, a short time later.
It is now worth remembering the isolated discovery of photography that took place in our country in 1833 – six years before, therefore, the first patent for a photographic process being requested in Europe. Hercules Florence, a French citizen living in Vila de São Carlos (today called Campinas), São Paulo, not only developed and tested with reasonable success a rudimentary photographic process, but also coined the word that describes it, photographie.
Interested as he was in other inventions related to printed reproduction, Florence did not follow up his researches with the required diligence and became frustrated when, in 1839, he became aware of the news arriving from Europe announcing the invention of the daguerreotype. On 26th, October 1839, in the São Paulo newspaper A Phenix, he published a communiqué clarifying his position as to the Jornal do Comércio on the 29th of December of the same year.
The daguerreotype, mentioned above, one of the photographic processes being developed at that time, had been invented by the Frenchman Louis Jacques Mendé Daguerre in collaboration with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and his son Isidore Niépce. On 19th of August 1839, in a joint session of the Academics of Science and Fine Arts, in Paris, the invention of the daguerreotype and “donated to humanity” and rapidly disseminated throughout the world. It consists of a copper plate, silvered using an electrolytic process (galvanoplasty) and afterwards polished until it became a mirror. Sensitized from exposure to iodine vapors, it was then placed in the chamber and a latent photographic image formed on i, later developed using mercury vapors – that acted on the areas reached by light – becoming an amalgam of mercury and silver, visible. Because this was an extremely fragile artifact, plate, after being fixed, washed and dried was always sealed in a case, being re-covered with a glass plate. Although the images obtained in this way were of high quality, visualization was difficult because of the mirrored surface. Furthermore, the image was laterally inverted and unique, that is could not be replicated, du7e to the non-existence of a negative.
Four years before the patent however, another important process was already in the process of being developed by the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot who, however, only took up his investigations again after learning of the announcement of the daguerreotype. In 1840, the latent image was discovered – which became visible by means of development, thus making possible a considerable reduction (for only 1 minute, on average) of the exposure time needed to take the photographs. Talbot finally patented his process in 1841, and began to demand the payment of royalties in some countries. This was the calotype or talbotype, a paper negative that after processing (developing) was waxed to make it more transparent and thereafter pressed against another sensitized paper, under a glasse plate and exposed to sunlight, thereby making it possible to obtain a photographic copy (positive) on salinized or salt paper – designated thus because the initial bath was in fact in a sodium chloride solution, well known kitchen salt. Reproducibility in photography became viable there, as we know it and use it today: the original, or matrix, and the negative from which it is possible to generate and infinite number of positive copies, all of equal quality and worth. The photograph thus became a multiple.
The images produced by the calotype however, were neither of the same quality nor did they exercise the same fascination as those obtained using the daguerreotypes. The fibers that constituted the paper negative impaired the positive impression, which had a granulated appearance, with no precision on the details (that which today we call image resolution) and a brownish and dull coloration.
Origins of Brazilian photography
We return now to Brazil. Already on 17th January 1840 the French abbot Louis Compte, chaplain on the L´Orientale, a French-Belgian training ship that was going round the world and had recently arrived from Europe, produced the first daguerreotypes of our country, all of the central area of the city of Rio de Janeiro. Introduced to this very new process, D. Pedro II – at that time only 14 years old and on the eve of the anticipation of his majority – became interested immediately and soon arranged for the acquisition of equipment for his own use and better understanding of the process thereby becoming the first Brazilian citizen to take a photograph.
It is at this point therefore, that the production of the photographic images of our country known today started. Some of the first photographers to arrive in Brazil, coming from Europe or North America, were travelers, genuine adventurers, who visited various of our coastal cities before moving on to the Southern Cone, thereafter reaching the Pacific Ocean and traveling up the other side of the continent. Others established themselves – some for a short time (often involved in some specific undertaking of photographic documentation), others for longer and still others for their whole lives.
With the passing of the decades, the first Brazilian photographers appeared. Although Brazilian photography of the XIX century attained an excellent level of quality, in quantities terms production was not comparable with that of other countries, where social and economic conditions were more favorable, making possible consumption by larger segments of the population.
The evolution of photographic technology
The technology of photography evolved and diversified with amazing rapidity in the decades following the first inventions. Parallel to the dissemination of the daguerreotype, in the 1840´s, the production of calotypes (the paper negatives) also advanced, not only in Great Britain (mainly England and Scotland) but also in France, where various great photographers appeared who dedicated themselves to the documentation of buildings and monuments, sponsored by the government itself. Some Frenchmen, such as Gustave Le Gray and Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evraard, undertook even more important technological developments in order to improve the quality and productivity of the calotypes. It was already clear at that time that the future of photography lay in the processes that made possible multiple reproductions, from a negative or other type of matrix.
Years after the implantation of the first negative-positive processes – invented by Fox Talbot in the 1’830´s but patented only in 1841 – another Englishman, Frederick Scott Archer, obtained success in 1850 when using a viscous liquid, collodium (nitrate of cellulose or nitrocellulose, diluted in ether and alcohol) to adhere the emulsion of silver salts to a glass plate, thus developing the glass negative of wet collodium, also known as the wet plate. In this way, the problem previously caused by the interference of cellulose fibers when copying a paper negative was resolved, - the quality of these positives now was greatly superior to those copies obtained from the calotypes. The use of this new negative, which had to be prepared immediately before the act of taking the photograph and developed soon after (because when collodium dries it becomes impermeable, impeding the use of the developer) rapidly became widespread.
It is a fact that even before Scott Archer, the Frenchman Claude Félix Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor had already developed a glass negative, in 1847, using albumen – a protein extracted from white of egg – to adhere the silver salts to the glass plates. Although these negatives could be prepared in advance, capable of lasting many days before their use, they were not very sensitive to light, requiring long exposure time and being therefore, inadequate for the production of portraits, the “fever” for which was already starting. It was therefore Scott Archer´s process – that produced more rapid or sensitive emulsions – that obtained greater acceptance and spread rapidly throughout the world, as had happened previously with the daguerreotype. Still in the first half of the 1850´s, with the use of the glass negative of wet collodium, it was already possibly to take a photograph, in good light conditions, with exposure time as short as one second.
The advent of collodium negatives gave rise to two other processes inspired by the daguerreotype, since both also produced a unique image: o ambrotype (1851) and a ferrotype (1855). The first, another invention of Scott Archer made highly popular by the American James Ambrose Cutting, who in fact patented on of its variants, consisted of a negative image on a glass plate, placed over a black surface to acquire the appearance of a positive and which was also presented in a case, although at a lower cost. The second, patented by the American Hannibal L. Smith and considered a markedly popular format, consisted of a variant of that same process, being an image formed on an iron plate previously painted black. Mounted on a card or paper, the ferrotype was aimed at the less favored layers of society and was exploited by traveling photographers circulating constantly through the most popular localities.
Albumen paper appears
To produce copies from glass negative, proportioning results of superior quality, the French photographer Louis-Désiré Blaquart-Evrard developed, in 1849-1850, a new albumen photographic paper. Albumen, protein extracted from egg white, was placed in a basin and the sheet of paper, extremely fine, was delicately placed on the surface of that liquid, “floated” for a very short space of time and thus became albumenous. The paper thus coated acquired a smooth and brilliant finish and could be stored until the moment of use, when it was “floated” in another basin containing a solution of silver nitrate. The layer of albumen retained the silver salts and was immediately dried. After the copying of the negative onto that albumen paper and processing, an image much richer in contrast was produced (with more intense highlights and darker shadows), also in tonal gradation and in detail (resolution).
Already in 1851, Blanquart-Evrard installed in the French city of Lille, an industrial production line for the production of copies. With the production of various photographers, amateur and professional, he published thematic portfolios, selling them at a price compatible with the lithographs – much cheaper therefore than the prices of studio photographers but with no guarantee of the permanence of the printed images. In nearly five years of activity, until 1855, nearly 100,000 photographic copies were produced. He gave up his business, being unable to achieve the necessary profitability.
The instability of photographic materials worried all those involved in the business, it was necessary to develop techniques to ensure the stability and permanence of the images. The Fading Committee proposed in 1855 by Price Alert, a photograph enthusiast and husband to England´s Queen Victoria and the prize offered by Honoré d´Albert, Duke of Luynes, an art lover, archaeologist and French photographer, to whoever made the greatest contribution to progress on the question of permanence of silver based images, serves as an example of the efforts made at that time. It was clear that the fixing and washing of the copies deserved special attention. In this sense, the photographs on albumen paper in this exhibition represent a perfect testimony to those challenges – after all, we are able to appreciate in this collection images in a perfect state of conservation as well as those considerably faded and/or yellowed.
Albumen paper proved to be the “ideal partner” for the wet collodium negatives and from the middle of that decade became the world’s most popular photographic paper, a fact that persisted for approximately three decades – this being the period covered by this exhibition. Although its use declined during the last decade of that century; it was still being used until approximately the 1930´s. In its first years of use, this process was carried out in it’s entirely in the photographer’s own studio.
Soon however, albuminous paper industries appeared. Sensitization of the paper with silver nitrate however, almost always continued to be the job of the photographer or one of his assistants, being carried out on the eve of its use for the copying of negatives.
The paper used had to be a certain quality: Thus, it was always rag paper – of cotton or linen. According to James Reilly there were only two industries, in the whole world, who consistently achieved a consistent standard of quality, producing the ideal paper for coating with albumen and sensitized with silver salts, free from any residues originating with the raw material (such as the metallic residues from the buttons usually left on the reprocessed rags or metal fragments coming from the machinery itself) or the water used (such as mineral residue), since at that time purification techniques developed later were not yet known. These industries, which maintained their monopoly from the 1860´s until the period of the 1st World War were Blanchet Frères et Kléber Co. (located in the French town of Rives) who produced Rives paper and Steinbach and Company (located in Malmedy, Belgium – a region then belonging to Germany) that produced Saxe paper.
The biggest industries that “albumenized” that paper were in Germany, but there were also industries in France, England and the United States. In Brazil, as far as we know, there was never any large-scale production of albumen paper. Naturally, it was possible for a local photographer to acquire the paper and coat it with albumen. It is more than possible that innumerable local photographers worked this way; but is also probable that many photographers imported the albumen paper and sensitized it here.
As has already been said, large production took place in industry. The first state of production was up to women therefore, since they occupied most of the posts: break the eggs and separate the whites form the yolks. The latter had no use in photography and was generally sent to bakeries or other food makers. The white of egg was beaten, adding salts and then placed in flasks and deposited to rest for a few days. Progressively, at the bottom of the flasks, a liquid was being deposited which is albumen, protein extracted from white of egg. In another sector of the industry, the albumin was poured into basins where the sheets of very fine paper were floated. Because the albumen should not touch the reverse side of the paper, the sheets were handled with great delicacy when being placed in the basin. Then these sheets were removed and hung up to dry; subsequently being cut, wrapped and sold. In the last decades of the XIX century, it was common to see on sale pink, purple or blue albumen paper, which became fashionable. These days, it is difficult to recognize these papers, since the dyes then used were unstable in light and faded with time.
Still according to James Reilly Germany, where the albumen paper industry had existed since 1854, became the largest world producer as from 1870. The city of Dresden was the main center; thanks to its proximity to the large paper and egg producers as well as the low cost of labor; if compared to the English or American competitors. Furthermore, the use of bacteria present in the albumin itself to set off the fermentation process produced a more brilliant paper with better results when the time came to proceed with the turning. In order to give an idea of the scale of local production, where there were two large factories and various smaller ones, Reilly quotes the numbers of the Dresdener Albuminfabriken A.G., which in 1888 produced 18,674 reams of albumen paper. Each ream consists of 480 sheets measuring 46x58 each. To produce each of these reams, it was necessary to have 9 liters of albumen, obtained from 27 dozen eggs. Thus, the production of this one factory consumed more than 6 million eggs in one year!.
When the photographer was going to produce a photographic copy on albumen paper, he had to sensitize the paper. But towards the end of the century, there was already pre-sensitized photographic albumen paper, with the addition of citric acid, used more by amateurs. The professionals continued to sensitize their own papers, ideally on the day they intended to make the copies – or at most, two or three days previously. As has already been mentioned, silver nitrate is diluted in a basin and the paper floated on this liquid, to absorb the salts. The paper is hung up to dry, which had to be done in a dark environment or with filtered light – usually, an amber light, something close to yellow, so as not to darken the paper.
The paper was then placed in a copying frame, made of wood, together with the glass negative – emulsion against emulsion. That is, the image on the glass negative was in direct contact with the emulsion of the virgin paper. This “sandwich” was pressed from behind and exposed to the light, in the frame. Usually, this was done in an area within the studio itself. Sometimes, this copying was done in an external area. In the case of cold countries this was less feasible during a good part of the year, because in very low temperatures the photographic process becomes very slow. In tropical countries however, the opposite problem was faced – just as there is abundant light, there is too much heat, and this also harms the processing.
The photographer places the frames on an easel, so that the sun traverses the glass negative and prints the positive image on the albumen paper. These papers were denominated direct development photographic papers, or direct papers and required a large quantity of luminous energy to produce an image, without the use of any chemical processing, that is, without using developers. As the light acted on the paper, the silver ions were transforming themselves into metallic silver and the image was darkening, and consequently, becoming visible. So that the photographer could control the quality of the photograph he was producing, after some time he could open a part of the back of the frame, pull a little of the paper out - but without losing the register, that is to say, without dislocating the negative in relation to the photo – and observe the result. Quality control was visual. If more time were required, he would close de frame and replace it on the easel. As soon as the image was satisfactory, he would remove the paper from the frame and go to onto the final phase of the processing. He could then start to make a new copy, similar to the one before.
This processing was as follows: first, wash the photographic paper to remove excess silver nitrate. Then, the so-called turning was done – because the photos always had a reddish tone, brownish, not appreciated at that time. For this reason, nearly all the photos were submitted to a turning – submerged in a basin where there was a solution of gold chloride, which changed the tones of that black and white photograph, making the “black” more intense and expressive, more purple or blue. Then, the photographs was washed and dried.
In the studios that produced on a large scale, professionals were contracted only to look after the turning. These professionals, equipped with good visual sensibility, dominated the “secrets” of the job. They spent the entire day turning photographs. The washing, as today, was very important. However, we should remember that often there was no abundant running water as there is today and the washing was deficient – but its importance was recognized.
At the end of the process, the photographs were normally mounted on card (for single photographs) or on sheets of paper (when bound into albums), because albumin paper is always very fine. If the paper was not mounted, it would roll up quickly – as happened with the travel photographs exhibited here, rolled up for more than a century before being flattened out again.
Other important technological progress, still in the XIX century
The process of glass negatives of wet collodium, implanted in the 1850´s lasted until the 1880´s, when negatives of glass gelatin and silver, also called dry plates, quickly substitute it. Gelatin is now the substance used to adhere the silver salt to the glass. From here on, the pre-sensitized negatives began to be industrialized since these are durable and have greater sensitivity to light. There is also the appearance of photographic papers of gelatin and silver, also industrialized and already sensitized at the time of sale. In this exhibition, the glass negatives produced from the time of exile of Princess Isabel and the Conde d´Eu and the photographic copies of the same period are examples of this technology.
It is also in the 1880´s that the first flexible photographic films appear; based on cellulose nitrate. It is here that the greatest photographic revolution of the XIX century takes place, with the outset of genuine popularization of the process, when the man in the street was able to take his own photographs. As from the notable launch of the Kodak nº 1, the cameras became smaller; the films became faster and commercial photographic laboratories appeared. The “instant” photograph is no longer the privilege of scientists or specialists. The lens also evolved in amazing fashion and already in the first decades of the XX century: cameras were launched with more luminous lenses, faster shutter speeds and more practical handling. New film formats appear. The flash is developed and undergoes successive improvements. The color photograph undergoes an evolution imprecedented in it history. We have, finally, an endless series of new developments bringing us up to the present day; when we have already arrived in the era of the digital image.
Going back to the XIX century, it is worth mentioning that during that times many other photographic papers were developed, based on iron salts, platinum, palladium, etc. There was also a process based on bi-chromate gum (with potassium dichromate). A substance was prepared which, when receiving light, hardened instead of darkening – a “mechanism” similar to that practiced by Niépce, with Judean bitumen at the beginnings of photography. The dichromate, mixed with pigemenis and applied to paper, made possible various process, such as the famous charcoal paper.