Hand-colored Japanese Albumen Prints 1880-1900
Early, hand-colored albumen prints by Japanese photographic artists depict a formalized, delicately beautiful portrait of traditional Japanese culture in the last years of the 19th century.
The first daguerreotype cameras came to Japan through the Dutch trading post Dejima located in the Nagasaki Bay around the middle of the nineteenth century. The trading post’s physician offered instruction in photography and wrote the first manuals for the Japanese on the use of the camera and photographic techniques.
The introduction of photography and modern printing methods to Japan in the nineteenth-century precipitated the decline in popularity of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The themes already known from woodblock prints were taken up in photography, and the artisans who had formerly worked with color printing-blocks applied their skills in the careful addition of colors to albumen photographs. Both ukiyo-e and photography also served as souvenirs of the vivid images of traditional Japan. Yet, while the former were intended to represent the fleeting and transient, the latter were tangible reminders of the visual world of late nineteenth-century Japan.
Albumen photographic prints were introduced around 1850 by the French photographer Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard. The albumen paper was prepared by first floating a sheet of fine quality paper on a solution of albumen (hen egg white) mixed with a salt. This process was sometimes repeated several times. When dried, the albumem coated paper was floated on a silver nitrate solution. The silver nitrate combined with the salt to form light-sensitive silver chloride in the albumen binder layer. The paper can then be exposed to light in direct contact with the negative. Light energy converts the silver halide to metallic silver. The resulting silver-based image is fixed with an aqueous solution of sodium thiosulphate and gold-toned. The print is then washed extensively in clean water and dried. In a final step, albumen prints are often rewet and mounted to a heavy weight paperboard using heat and high pressure.
Albumen prints are known for their subtly graded tones and fine-grained resolution. All albumen photographs exhibit a fine network of cracks in the albumen protein layer. Also, because of the difference in surface tension between the paper and the albumen layer, albumen prints tend to roll or curl in on themselves.