Displaying photography

It’s done: the last proof has been checked, the ‘send’ button has been pressed, and the panels for the exhibition ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ have gone to press at the superb Echo House production house. I’ve had many moments of worrying about what visitors will think when the show opens at The Collection in Lincoln in November – but there’s no turning back now.

The idea for this exhibition grew out of a British Academy research fellowship that I held in 2015 – so like most exhibitions, it’s been a long time coming, but with a lot of the work inevitably done in a flurry towards the end. But the central idea hasn’t changed, both in terms of what I wanted to explore in the exhibition, and the physical form I wanted it to take. Let me explain a bit about both, since one informs the other.

Most exhibitions of photography display photographic prints mounted in frames and fixed to the walls of a gallery. The prints might themselves be ‘vintage’, that is, printed at or near the time the photographs were taken, and perhaps even made by the credited photographer. The idea of an original photographic print, that is, something developed and printed by a named photographer – Julia Margaret Cameron, or Henri Cartier-Bresson, to take two famous names – owes a lot to a self-conscious positioning of photography as a unique artistic expression. Mounting photographs in frames also encourages us to see them as works of art, much like we would view a painting, engraving, or drawing.

But more often, photography has been a tool, not an art form. From the time of its discovery in the 1830s, using photographic technology as a recording device was the dominant idea – and recording monuments, objects, people, and natural phenomena quickly became the main use of the camera. Added to that, negative-based photographic processes allowed almost endless reproductions of the image, either from the original negative or by re-photographing existing prints, in the days before digital scanning. Negatives were also used to make magic lantern slides to project for entertainment or at public lectures, like the sold-out lectures that Howard Carter gave about his work at the tomb of Tutankhamun.

To my mind, displaying the Tutankhamun photographs in frames and hanging them on a gallery wall would invite viewers to see them only for their aesthetic value – that is, as works of art. Many of the photographs have an aesthetic value, of course. But why were certain photographs taken to look especially appealing or evocative, and what about the aesthetic of ‘objective knowledge’ that many of the photographs adopt instead? Those are the kinds of questions that interest me and inform my research.

Sample panel for blog

Rather than making new prints to display in conventional gallery frames, I came up with the idea of printing digital scans from Harry Burton’s negatives on large panels. These panels also incorporate a short text, a title, and credit information, against a complementary background. Apart from the introductory panel (which you get a glimpse of, in draft form, above), each panel is the same size, and they will hang on the gallery walls at the same height, about equal distance apart. What I hoped was that this format would be flexible, allowing the exhibition to be made smaller – or larger, if we add to it – for different venues, and also allowing the panels to be reused several times, making this a cost-effective way to offer a loan exhibition to smaller museums or other venues.

The panels are made of a material called Dibond, which consists of two thin metal sheets sandwiching a core material for support. It’s often used for museum signage. Instead, for ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’, the signs become the show, asking viewers to experience photography not (or not only) on the visual level, but as a set of practices in the field and in the press, and between people, places, and objects. Photos and photography made archaeology meaningful, yes – but not for the reasons we often assume.

Fifty shades of blue

I haven’t written here recently because I’ve been so busy preparing teaching for the new semester at the University of East Anglia – and debating shades of blue and other design details for the ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ exhibition, which opens November 10th at The Collection in the beautiful cathedral city of Lincoln, Lincolnshire.

IMG_8937If you know anything about graphic design, you’re probably familiar with Pantone – the American company whose colour (or should that be ‘color’?) charts are used as a standard in many industries, especially printing. That’s one of the charts you see in the photograph above – spread out on the desk in my office with some A3 draft printouts of the large panels that comprise the exhibition. Pantone charts are like the paint charts you pick up when you’re decorating your house, but with a gazillion more options. Fun!

We’ve been trying to find the right shade of blue to complement the new digital scans that The Griffith Institute at Oxford University have made for the exhibition, directly from Harry Burton’s glass negatives. (‘We’ means me, a couple of trusted friends and colleagues, and designer Paul Kuzemczak of GK3 design here in Norwich.) Digital scanning is an amazing tool, and one that many photographic archives use now to make both photographic positives and negatives available – ‘flipping’ the negatives so that they look like printed positives.

But: digitizing monochrome, silver-gelatine negatives like Burton’s tends to make the flipped image look a little ‘cold’, no matter how skilled the person doing the scanning. Digital versions emphasize the deep blacks and bright whites on the negative, which are then reversed on the computer to produce the positive – the images you see above. When printing his negatives to paper back in the 1920s, a photographer like Harry Burton would have achieved softer tones of grey instead, even veering into the sepia browns that we often associate with old photographs. This depended on what kind of paper was used (in one of his letters to Metropolitan Museum of Art colleagues, Burton mentioned using bromide paper) and on adjustments the photographer could make during the printing process in the darkroom. ‘Dodging’ is the term for blocking some of the light as you expose a print, which has the effect of brightening up a shadowy area on the print and making more detail visible there. ‘Burning’ is the opposite, blocking everything else on a print while you expose a too-light area for longer and thus make it appear darker on the finished photograph. Burton, by instinct and experience, would have used both.

Digital scans from negatives create a new image, and in some ways, a different one. It’s still a photograph, but it won’t be identical to any photograph Burton printed from the same negative in the 1920s, or to prints that other photographers have created in the past century using Burton’s negatives. In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to know which prints in the Tutankhamun archives were made by Burton and which were made later – changes in the paper may be the only clue. This is normal in photographic collections, and too often overlooked by people who aren’t used to working with photographs. With few exceptions, like the daguerreotype, photography isn’t a technology of the unique. It’s a technology of reproduction and multiplication – that’s what made it so powerful a tool and so popular a medium.

For the exhibition panels, the question has been how to choose a colour that warms up the cold tones of the digital scans without overwhelming the images and texts – or, for that matter, the visitors. We pretty quickly settled on a soft blue as a good visual complement for the photographs and for the white-walled venues we have in Lincoln and at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, where the show moves for summer 2018. Shades of white and grey were too, well, grey; any kind of tan or brown or red tinge (think ‘desert’) looked flat and dead with the photographs; and other colours – like greens or golds or pinky-purples – were too ‘out there’ and competed with the photographs.

So, blue it had to be – but with a hint of warmth, even though blue is usually considered a ‘cold’ colour. I think we’re nearly there. One more sample should arrive this week from our fantastic printers, Echo House, whittling it down to our last two choices. Will it be P 120-1 U or P 120-9 U, to use the Pantone chart codes? Edge of your seat stuff, obviously. Just as well they don’t have names like ‘Luxor blue’ or ‘Pharaoh’s breath’. As someone with a kitchen wall painted in Vert de Terre, I don’t think I could handle the suspense.