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Mammoth-Plate Albumen Prints on View in McCormick Hall Exhibition

September 3, 2014

The current exhibition in the gallery space outside McCormick 106 highlights some superb examples of 19th-century mammoth-plate albumen prints from the department’s Research Photographs collection.

The albumen process, first used around 1850, was the dominant photographic printing process between roughly 1855 and 1890. Most albumen photographs were produced by contact printing a glass negative on a sheet of paper prepared with photographic chemicals bound with albumen from egg whites. The prints are hence precisely the same size as the negatives from which they were made. Using mammoth negatives—glass plates ranging in size from 10 × 12 inches to as large as 18 × 22 inches—allowed photographers to produce outsized photographic prints before the development of enlarging equipment. The technique resulted in prints that capture both the vast expanse and the fine detail of their subjects.

Working in the field, photographers often produced these photographs under difficult and even dangerous conditions, preparing and fixing them in darkroom tents using explosive materials such as liquid ether and gun cotton, and sometimes working in the heat of the desert. The portable darkrooms and bulky camera equipment were difficult to transport, the supplies of chemicals ill adapted to changing climates, and the glass plates very fragile. Many glass negatives did not survive rough carriage rides, bad weather, or tricky chemistry gone awry. Despite these obstacles, intrepid photographers like Pascal Sebah and Antonio Beato succeeded in capturing magnificent views of ancient sites and monuments.

The mammoth prints that survive are both precious documents of a fading past and images of timeless appeal, depicting historic sites and monuments with a level of detail that is just as impressive today as it was in the 19th century. In addition to being beautiful examples of early photography, mammoth photographs played an important role in familiarizing the American and European public with historic sites and constructed views of life in exotic locales. They were sold both to armchair travelers—through publishers and agents in Europe and the United States—and to growing numbers of tourists.

In the early years of the Department of Art and Archaeology, these large-scale prints were part of the study collection. Prior to the introduction of slides and projectors, they were studied and handled by students, and the obvious wear and tear seen on many of the photographs in this exhibition are artifacts of their role in educating earlier generations of Princetonians.