Secret history of salt prints

In other cases, the printmaker was heavy-handed, and the photos have suffered for it over time.

Hand-applied media was a common addition to many prints, Maloney explained, to better represent colorful reality, and “runs the gamut from subtle artistic additions to quite garish.” Many photographers came from artistic backgrounds and could skillfully apply this media, which likely looked better when it was first added. Some hand-colored prints might even be mistaken for a drawing or painting at first glance.

A portrait of New York socialite Charlotte Augusta Southwick Waddell was hand-colored in the 1850s, perhaps to look more like a painting, conservators speculate.

Unfortunately, alterations like these can speed up deterioration of photographs since the added media ages differently. “Aging of salt prints with media applied, especially colored media, does not happen gracefully,” Bulat said.

In the case of Waddell’s portrait, at some point the coating became sticky due to humidity and attached to paper placed on top of the print. Conservators removed the paper remnants, a rare case of them taking action with a print due to a distracting unintended addition. Typically, when media or image material is lost, they will not attempt to replace it.

Elena Bulat.

Elena Bulat.

“We’re looking to keep our hand as invisible as possible,” Maloney said. “We want to make sure the print can safely make it into the hands of a researcher, but we don’t want to mediate their experience with the print. We let its whole history show.”

If you’re wondering if any of the old photos in your attic are salt prints, conservators offer a few clues: Salt prints tend to have a warmer tone and softer appearance and a rougher surface than albumen prints.

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