At first glance many would mistake the sepia tones of a woodburytype print with the very prolific 19th century process of the albumen print. There are a few key distinctions however between these processes. As an object, the woodburytype is a photomechanical medium made from pigmented gelatin. It has all the qualities of the richest albumen print, with the great advantage that there is next to no chance that the image will ever fade.
In developing a connoisseurship of photographic media, once one becomes familiar with how fugitive a historic albumen print can be, should one come across an image of similar tone and colour that is almost too perfect… a moment’s pause would be prudent, as it’s quite possible that it is actually a photomechanical reproduction such as a woodburytype.
Patented in 1864 by Walter Bently Woodbury, the woodburytype (also known as “photoglyptie” by the French) can be distinguished from other photomechanical ink-based processes as it is a continuous-tone image which does not employ screens or grain to make up the image. It is in its essence an extremely fine coloured gelatin relief which uses a lead matrix filled with the pigmented gelatin which is then fused to a paper support under an enormous amount of pressure in a press. Once removed from the press, the print is trimmed to remove the excess coloured gelatin which was squeezed out whilst under pressure, and then the print is mounted to its final support. Under raking light, one can observe the fine three dimensional relief of the image by paying close attention to where areas of light and dark are next to each other. This characteristic can also be described as observing “differential gloss” between those parts of the image which are thicker in gelatin and those which are thinner.
This process was an extremely painstaking and labour intensive one, but due to the staggering quality of the final product it remained in popular use for finer photographically illustrated publications until about the 1900s.
Digital copies, as is often the case, don’t do justice to the depth and richness of this medium. All of the illustrations featured here are taken from our Photographic Books Collection and should be seen in person in our Special Collections Reading Room to be fully appreciated.