Characteristics of Salted Paper Prints

Salted paper prints exhibit a diverse range of visual characteristics depending on the paper, process variations, and finishing. Examples range from early paper prints by Talbot with a matte paper surface and brown tones to later prints with a semi-shiny surface and cool tones.

Sizing and Toning

Photographers typically used high-quality cotton writing paper for their photographic prints. Nineteenth-century papers were usually produced with gelatin or starch sizing (components added during the manufacturing of the paper). In order to make prints more durable and to achieve distinct visual characteristics, photographers often incorporated other substances into printing papers, a process known as additional sizing. By adding gelatin, starch, resins, or albumen (egg white), photographers could change the surface, create a sharper appearance, or alter the tonality of a print.

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"Interior view of Brattle Street Church, Boston, showing organ and pews," R. Nixon, salted paper print, 1861, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School









An early toning method included the application of heat during the flattening of prints, which made the image appear darker. After 1850, the majority of photographers toned their prints with gold chloride (gold toning) to produce a more desirable cool, purplish-brown color after processing. Conservators today believe that gold toning also resulted in a more stable print. Other toning options included toning with sulfur as well a mixture of gold chloride and sodium thiosulfate, also known as sel d'or toning or toning with platinum. 


Print Finishing

The steps of finishing a salt print included mounting, burnishing, and coating. The application of heat (known as ironing) was used to flatten prints and to create a cooler tonality. 

Salted paper prints were often mounted on a larger piece of paper or board usually with starched-based adhesives. To adhere the print to the mount, photographers sometimes placed prints through a roller and or used a burnisher. These procedures made the surface of the print smoother and achieved a shinier finish. Some photographers never mounted their photographs but kept them in folios in a dark place.

Methods for fixing and washing salt prints were still evolving during the early stages of the process. At this time, photographers observed that many prints were changing color and stains were appearing, even on prints stored away from the light. The application of varnishes and coatings, they learned, provided some protection along with an improved appearance.



Photographers learned that the application of a transparent medium to the surface of the print provided a protective layer. Even in the nineteenth century, salted paper prints were known for their sensitivity to light, humidity, temperature, and pollutants. In 1855, the Photographic Society of London established a committee to investigate and report on the "Fading of Photographs.” A thin coating with materials such as bees wax, white wax, gum Arabic, dextrin, albumen, gelatin, casein, dammar, sandarac, shellac, Canada balsam, and copal was used to preserve the photographic image against fading or other damage. Applications of coatings could be comprised of a single substance or a mixture of substances.



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"Atherton Blight, Philadelphia," John Adams Whipple, salted paper print, 1854, Harvard University Archives "Henry Clay and wife," Matthew Brady?, salted paper print, 1850s?, Harvard Fine Arts Library, Special Collections






A coating also served an aesthetic function as it filled in the tiny areas between the paper fibers on the print surface. In this manner, the naturally matte surface of the salt print took on a rich, saturated appearance creating the optical illusion of a sharper image and a glossier, smoother appearance.  Over time, some of these coatings have protected the print, while others have obscured the image with heavy discoloration and cracking.



Retouching and Hand Coloring

The matte surface of the salt print lent itself to hand coloring and retouching. Hand coloring was used to add color, to create a more realistic appearance of the image, and to achieve a more artistic look.  Retouching used many of the same tools and techniques as hand coloring, but with the intent of improving the photographic image or covering an imperfection.

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"Council of war held at Lord Raglan's headquarters the morning of the successful attack on the Mamelon," Roger Fenton, salted paper print, 1855, Houghton Library, Harvard University

















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"Mr. Irwin," Matthew Brady?, salted paper print, 1850s?, Harvard Fine Arts Library, Special Collections