Egypt in the modern world Reviews

Photographing Tutankhamun by Christina Riggs

In 1924 during the summer break, Harry Burton, the photographer of the Tutankhamun exhibition, went to Hollywood to see if he could learn anything from the experts. He and his wife had a pleasant enough time but found it a wasted journey. The studios didn’t want to give away their secrets to an outsider and he realised that the lighting needed for Hollywood style productions was more than he could manage in the cramped spaces in the Valley of the Kings. 

In 1924 during the summer break, Harry Burton, the photographer of the Tutankhamun exhibition, went to Hollywood to see if he could learn anything from the experts. He and his wife had a pleasant enough time but found it a wasted journey. The studios didn’t want to give away their secrets to an outsider and he realised that the lighting needed for Hollywood style productions was more than he could manage in the cramped spaces in the Valley of the Kings.

Burton’s photographs of the excavations are still famous. He not only took great photos of the objects themselves, but helped glamourise the expeditions. He still has a high reputation, but as Christina Riggs shows in this insightful book, photography and archaeology operated on many different levels.

First and most pressing need

One of the first things that Howard Carter did on discovering the size and scale of the treasures within the tomb of Tutankhamun was to go on a shopping spree to Cairo. Not because he was suddenly in the money but because he needed to gather resources and equipment around him. He later said that photography was the first and most pressing need. The reason was not just to photograph individual items as part of the recording and ascension process, the process that makes an object an archaeological item. He also needed to record the positions and shapes of items before he scientifically removed items from the tomb. This was in case of accidental damage of fragile items caused by the removals. In his record of the excavations, he describes how beadwork sandals whose connecting fibres had rotted away over time, but which had kept their shape might break suddenly. Photography was part of the process of conserving items.

Harry Burton, who was working for a team connected to the New York Met, was seconded to Carter to help him record photos. He took over a small tomb as a dark room. Over the eight years of work on the tomb, Burton took over 1,400 photographs. By the end he was “dashed glad” it was over.

Burton’s photos are the defining images not just of the Boy king or the Carter excavation, but of the whole field of Egyptology. Even today the majority of fictional images of Egyptology is either located in the 20s (such as The Mummy Franchise) or take elements from the period as key visual tropes – the white male scholars wear safari clothes and pith helmets or Tweed jackets and bow ties, the Egyptians wear fezs. This myth making was a direct byproduct of Burton’s image making.

Burton, like Carter, was from an artisanal lower middle class background. He gravitated to Egypt drawn by the opportunities offered to British men as a result of British Imperialism. Colonialism, its assumptions  and world views, are a key part of Rigg’s analysis. Between 1882 and 1952, Egypt was a British protectorate. The Egyptian Revolution of 1919 led to the recognition of Independence by Britain in 1922, although Britain maintained control over foreign relations. The discovery of Tutankhamun happened at a crucial junction of modern Egyptian history.

Although we think of the Valley of the Tombs as a remote and inhospitable area, it was in fact very close to the Tourist centre of Egypt. In the 1920s Luxor, was the winter capital of the Mediterranean. Rich European and American tourists flocked to the luxury hotels and casinos. Lord Carnarvon himself was drawn to Egypt on his doctor’s advice. Egypt was an epicentre of modernism.

Fashioning of image

Throughout his books and talks on the tomb, Carter stressed the scientific nature of his work. Yet he also used the drama and intrigue inherent in the discovery to drive interest in his work. Burton used photography to record the archaeological work, which staging  several photos to stress both the scientific work and the excitement. In many of these photos, only Western scholars are shown.

We see in some of Burton’s photos the direct influence of Orientalist paintings. The people in his photo adopt poses to create pleasing symmetry or dramatic tension, yet the Egyptians often placed in positions drawn from Victorian imagery of the East. This was not always the case. Riggs compares photos taken by the Western tourists who flocked to the tomb. They often show more equitable sharing of duties.

An interesting development of this was the promotional images released for the 2016 TV series based on the discovery. The photographer copied one of Burton’s images, but unlike the original which showed Carter next to an Egyptian, the 2016 photograph just showed Carter (played by Max Irons).

The newly recognised government of Egypt was interested in the ongoing excavation. Several government officials visited the tomb and were dutifully photographed by Burton. Two images, one showing a group of notables including three past, present and future Prime Ministers, and another showing King Fuad, are both captioned “The Boys”. The reasons for the use of this caption are not fully understood, but the racist overtones are clear. Egyptians were often called boys. Burton himself called the specialised photography team working on the tomb, his photo boys.

Invisible Museum

Burton’s photographs of objects reveal a dramatic use of chiaroscuro which was in contract to the more objective style recommended in the archaeology handbooks. The photos have become important objects in their own right. In 1951, photos, albums and negatives kept in the Met travelled across the Atlantic on the S.S. Queen Elizabeth. Penelope Fox had undertaken a small research project on the photographic records held in the Ashmolean. She wanted to catalogue the records. Riggs carefully pulls apart the sexist assumptions of the period. It was a small project undertaken before Fox’s marriage. It was not a research project, but rather clerical work, fit for a young woman. Nevertheless Fox’s work was key to understanding the photos as items of historical importance. The archives contained a lot of replication. Photos from the same negatives and repeated shots.

A crucial question at the time was whether photos of objects are objects themselves. And if so, did the Egyptian government have a moral or legal right to the photographs?

The “real” in museums is more ambitious than most would believe. Most museums still contain reconstructions, replicas and copies of various kinds. As Riggs points out there is an ambiguity at the heart of archaeology. Archaeological items are presented as universal but also as tradable commodities, the trade of which raises money for the work of archaeology.

Burton’s work operated in a similar way. Many of his photos were used by the Times  (and thence over media outlets) to spread knowledge of the discoveries. It also spread knowledge and appreciation of Egyptian Art. During the first season (1922-23), the Times discussed the objects found in the tomb as ancient craftsmanship of decorative art, but thereafter the objects were referred to art. Burton raised the stature of art and challenged the canonical importance of classical art.

Although Riggs does not mention it, contemparaneously with Carter’s work in Egypt, Andre Malraux was developing his idea of an imaginary museum. The imaginary museum used the technological opportunities offered by photography and printing to radically transform the way that art was curated, exhibited, displayed and consumed. Malraux was a firm champion of “World Art”. He was also a colonialist and arrested for trying to export antiquities from French Indo-China. Like Burton, Malraux used photography that used dramatic use of light and shade and close ups.

Egyptomania and Modernity

Ancient Egyptian art inspired a new form of modernity, the Art Deco movement. By the late 20s, the London Illustrated News was talking of the discoveries in the tomb (illustrated by Burton’s photography) in terms of modern styles or the archetypes of modern designs.

For Riggs this reading is informed by the ideology of empire and modernity. She argues that there was an ambiguity at the heart of modernity which was associated with Western technological developments. The allure of Egypt was part of a domestication of the Other: “apprehensions of ancient Egypt made the ancient culture seem ever more familiar, even conforming, to Western audiences, just as the modern Egyptian site became ever more independent”.

During this period we see Egyptian styles becoming part of the urban and suburban vernacular. Cinemas were the most common place this happened. Art Deco was a release for a West both in allure of and troubled by its own modernity. The connotations of luxury and splendor was a colonial conceit of the mythical East. Egypt was therefore both a challenger to the traditional forms of classical culture – perceived as elitist and cold (the classical was used for institutions such as museums, banks and churches) – and a promoter of colonial assumptions.


A fascinating book revealing and analysis the underlying inequalities of archaeology then and now. ★★★★★

Photographing Tutankhamun: Archaeology, Ancient Egypt, and the Archive by Christina Riggs (Bloomsbury) is on sale now.

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh presented by Viking Cruises opens at the Saatchi Gallery on 2 November.

Wooden Guardian Statue of the Ka of the King Wearing the Nemes Headcloth from Treasures of the Pharaoh Exhibition at Saatchi Gallery (CREDIT IMG)

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