Seeing Moons


The Preservation Unit has been preparing for the latest exhibition, Manatunga, which will show in the Sir George Grey Special Collections exhibition room.

The photos below are taken from the latest batch to arrive. You might be forgiven for thinking it’s a photo series of the moon, or a total eclipse of the sun… but no, it is in fact a photograph, magnified to 100 x it’s size.


After attending Gawain Weaver’s excellent Care and Identification of Photographs course earlier in the year, this was a perfect opportunity to brush up, and test what I learnt. The images above were taken using my phone’s camera with a mini-illuminated microscope held to the lens. While we have much more powerful microscopes, this mini microscope can magnify up to 100x the original size, and allow us to get a good picture of how a print was made, and through analysis, hopefully what it is. With this information, we can then proceed with proper conservation and preservation plans.

Here’s the actual photograph:

Albumen Print and Magnifier

Albumen print of Matutaera Tāwhiao, leader of the Waikato iwi, and 2nd Maori King. The mini-microscope has 60-100x magnification power.

The photograph is an Albumen Print, typical of photography from the 1850s – 1890s. Albumen prints were notable in their use of egg whites (where the word ‘albumen’ comes from). A piece of paper was dipped into egg whites, dried, then dipped into silver nitrate to attain light sensitivity. After drying in the dark, this paper was then placed within a camera of the day, to be exposed, and take a photograph.

While the “moon” photos above aren’t great, you should be able to see the defining characteristics of an albumen print: a brownish tone, partially visible paper fibres, and a semi-gloss surface.

Interesting fact: Due to the need for great quantities of egg whites, photographers’ cookbooks were published during this time, with recipes that would make use of all of that yolk!

Here’s a link to a recipe for the Photographer’s Cheesecake, and a Google Books scan discussing a British Journal of Photography 1861 article on the same dish.


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