Physical and Chemical Effects of Water on Albumen prints by Sherif Afifi

Albumen print sample immersed in distilled water for 15 minutes. ©Sherif Afifi

Albumen prints are composite objects with complex chemical and physical structures. Different materials lead to very complicated structures, which react and respond differently to external and internal influences. These structures make them more prone to damage as compared to other objects during some conservation treatment processes; a water treatment sometimes is the only alternative available, especially in conserving rare books which are illustrated with albumen prints, and this alternative can affect not only the paper substrate but also the albumen print.

In this study, a diagnostic of 19th-century Carte de Visite (CDV) albumen prints, has been performed before and after water treatment in order to evaluate the possibility of removing an albumen print from its secondary support and the effect of the treatment on the physical characteristics of the albumen layer. The basic aim of this study is to argue that a conservation intervention should not lead to any chemical or physical degradation of such rare photographs.
One particular CDV albumen print has been examined, to monitor the effect of water on the characteristics of its albumen layer after a distilled water bath, in order to evaluate the treatment effects and any other influence of the aqueous bath.
The albumen print used in this study comes from the collection of Egyptian heritage photograph collector Mr. Francis Amin, who donated part of his private photograph collection for this research. This albumen print is dated 1863 and represents a typical example of unburnished period albumen prints before 1870.
The albumen CDV has been immersed in distilled water for approximately 15 minutes (figure 1) to dissolve the adhesive which was likely a water base adhesive; then lightly and slowly the photograph has been perfectly removed from its secondary support using a spatula (figure 2). Any folding of the albumen print during the removal process was completely avoided. After the water bath, the photo was left to dry overnight (approximately 17 hours) under a weight of 4kg and between two blotter papers to remove standing water.

No macroscopic changes or deterioration to the naked eye on the albumen print and secondary support (figure 2a) were observed but, to better address the changes, a microscopic analysis has been performed before and after the experiment using stereo microscope Olympus SZ-STU2 with an Olympus ring light illuminator and with a magnification of 20x and 40x.
After the albumen print became dry, the print showed a strong tendency to slightly curl vertically towards the grain (fibres) direction of the primary support paper (figure 3), and so it was kept flat under the stereomicroscope using light weights during the microscopy examination.
The area examined included: the face of the lady on the print, the upper left corner of the albumen print, and the lady’s dress area. The results of the investigation performed at 20X and 40X are showed in figure 4.
Optical microscopy was the most useful method for recording changes in the surface of the albumen samples. Increasing of the cracks was one of the most evident modification in the albumen layer but not the only one; some other deformation like roughening, minute dimpling, and other small physical changes

corresponding to the grain of the paper developed after the water bath. The stress imposed on the photograph during the wetting and drying resulted in some reduction of the surface gloss.
To understand the chemical changes to the albumen layer after water treatment an FT-IR Spectrometer Perkin Elmer Spectrum Two with Attenuated Total Reflectance (ATR) accessory with a diamond crystal and a press, combined with a SpectrumTM10 software interface, has been used as non-destructive analytical technique. This allowed the analysis the functional groups in the albumen binders before and after the water treatment. The measurements for the sample were done in the range 4000-450 cm-1 and in order to ensure the accuracy of the measurements an accumulation of 16 scans has been set in the software.
A comparison of the two spectra, before and after treatment (figure 5), shows the hydrolysis of albumen that appears as an increase in the OH stretching band found at 3284 cm–1. The removal of some of the albumen layer as a result of the water test resulted in the changes in the ratio between the Amide I (1634 cm–1) spectral peak before treatment, and the spectral envelope of the cellulose substrate around 1030 cm–1 (Stulik & Kaplan, 2013). This represents a clear evidence of the thinning of the albumen layer caused by the immersion in water.

In conclusion, I can strongly recommend to avoid any water immersion treatments to albumen prints unless absolutely necessary. It is important to reduce any stress to the photo, especially to the surface of the albumen layer during the drying process; this must be performed very slowly, making the change from wet to dry state as gradual as possible to avoid sudden dimensional changes.
Moreover, more research on albumen layers, in particular on consolidation methods and materials after aqueous treatments, is needed. In any case, it is advisable to perform conservation treatments of such sensitive materials after careful examinations and decide on a case-by case.
This study confirms that wet treatments could cause deterioration on photographic materials, and should only be carried out in extreme cases.

I would like to thank:
Prof. Dr. Enrico Ciliberto. Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, Department of Chemical Sciences, University of Catania, Italy, and Dr. Simona Inserra. Lecturer – DISUM, Department of Humanities University of Catania, Italy; for the support, patient guidance, encouragement, and advice that they have provided.
I highly appreciate the help and support of Mr. Francis Amin, the Egyptian collector of rare photographs, who provided information and supported me with historic albumen photograph for this experimental part.
ATR-FTIR Reference
Stulik, D. C., & Kaplan, A. (2013). The Atlas of Analytical Signatures of Photographic Processes - Albumen. Los Angeles, United States: The Getty Conservation Institute.

All images used in this article belong to the author ©Sherif Afifi and used with his consent

About the author
Sherif Afifi is the Head of Conservation and Restoration unit at Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt where he has worked for nearly 11 years. He has been previously selected to work with preventive conservation's team at the British Library. He has a Master degree of Antique Photographs and Paper Heritage conservation, from Department of Chemical Science at the University of Catania, Italy, and Faculty of Applied Arts at the Helwan University, Egypt.
Sherif is developing mobile applications, particularly for conservators. He planned and worked in several international conservation and restoration projects for Bibliotheca Alexandrina and other institutions. His contribution in establishing Bibliotheca Alexandrina's first specialist conservation training center in Egypt was remarkable. He believes in creating a knowledge sharing culture, and his beliefs were behind launching a YouTube channel to provide conservation tutorials. To view Sherif’s tutorials visit:
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