Photography and History


What a winter that was. But in the spring sunshine, with the clocks having gone forward in Europe over the weekend, it’s time to think about what’s new, and what’s next.

I still have much more to say about Tutankhamun, never fear. But during the two years or more that I spent researching the Tutankhamun excavation and its photographic archive, I couldn’t help but come across thousands and thousands more photographs embedded in the history of Egyptology and archaeology. Whether mounted into albums or on card, filed in envelopes or stacked in boxes, printed in books or circulated as prints – and whether in the form of negatives or positives – all these photographs tell us just how essential photographic technology was to every academic endeavour from about the 1860s onward.

This is especially true (or especially easy to see) for archaeology and art history, which relied on being able to study objects, sites, and texts at a physical remove, regardless of where that object or text wound up or how accessible, or intact, an ancient site or structure was. Before we get caught up in the idea that photographs are records, that they are direct, uncomplicated images that magically transmit ‘evidence’ for us from the past, let’s remember what visual anthropologists like Christopher Morton have been saying for years: a photograph is the physical trace of a social encounter. In other words, photographs are not so much about what they show but about what kinds of human interactions were involved in their making, viewing, exchanging, storing, scrapping, and, sometimes, publication.

Those are the kinds of questions I’ve asked about the Tutankhamun photographs – and they’re the questions I plan to keep asking of other photographs connected to the study of Egyptian archaeology and art. Not that Egypt is the only relevant field of study, not by a long shot. However, it’s what I know well, it’s what I have a feel for by now, and I know that connections to other geographic spaces and spheres of interests will emerge along the way.


Just one example today, since big new projects are easier to get underway when they are broken down into smaller chunks first. The image above is a plate published in 1878 in a beautifully produced two-volume set entitled Voyage dans la Haute-Egypte. It was written by Auguste Mariette, an archaeologist and museum director who became a public figure in the course of his long career, especially in his native France. Mariette had first arrived in Egypt in 1850, when he was a curator at the Louvre. In 1858, the then-ruler of Egypt, Sa’id pasha, invited Mariette to head up a new ministry that would supervise archaeological work in Egypt, as well as a new national museum to hold the best of the finds. [1]

Twenty years later, Mariette was a pasha himself, as well as a bey (Ottoman titles of honour), celebrated for his many books on ancient Egypt and his famous excavations at Saqqara, where in the 1850s he had identified and cleared the catacombs of the sacred Apis bulls. That fame was why Alexandria-based publisher Antoine Moures – a longtime collaborator of Mariette’s – asked him to create an illustrated guide to the sites of Upper Egypt. [2] There was no better expert to appeal to discerning readers in a decade when tourism to Egypt was booming, especially in the form of a Nile cruise from Aswan in the south downriver to Cairo.

Let’s look more closely at the Voyage and its photographs – and then at this photograph in particular, which appears as Plate VIII in the first volume. Although 1839 is often said to mark the invention of photography (it’s the year in which the Daguerreotype process was registered in France), another 20 or 30 years would pass before any consistency emerged in photographic practices related to ancient artefacts or the new field practices that were then becoming known as archaeology. [3] Using glass plates coated with wet collodion emerged as the preferred photographic process in the 1860s and 1870s, when Mariette was active in Egypt. But printing technology for books and periodicals offered no easy, economical way to reproduce photographs as photographs. Instead, new versions of the photographic image were created using woodcut line engravings or lithography.

That changed with the development of photomechanical processes that could capture the distinctive tonal qualities of a photograph and facilitate repeat printing. The best quality process was the Woodburytype, which exposed a glass negative onto a gelatin-coated substrate, creating a positive image that, once the gelatin dried, could be used in a special printing press. Another process instead exposed the negative onto a steel or copper plate covered with sensitized carbon paper; the plate was chemically etched and used for multiple printings. This is known as photogravure in English (héliogravure in French), and although it had been around more or less since the 1850s, it took off from about 1879, thanks to refinements introduced by Czech artist Karel Klíč.

I’m setting out these (greatly simplified) details to make a point about how much effort and expertise went into printing a book like the Voyage. It’s an effort Mariette himself acknowledged in the preface, thanking his publisher Moures for using les procédés inaltérables (inalterable processes), in order to print the plates – in other words, a version of the Woodburytype. The plates were produced not by Moures in Egypt, but by Goupil & Cie, Parisian art dealers and fine art printers who had access to the specialized technique and equipment required.

Mariette was well aware that normal photographic positives easily faded, and that they were extremely difficult to reproduce in book form. He and Moures had already managed to produce the Album du Musée Boulaq a few years earlier, with photographs by Hippolyte Délie and Emile Bechard (no photographer is credited in the Voyage, but this was not unusual at the time). Hence Mariette’s lament, in the preface to the Voyage, that ‘[p]hotographie, en effet, es un parfait instrument de fidélité et de precision; mais elle a le grave défaut de ne pas durer.’ (Photography, in effect, is a perfect instrument of fidelity and precision, but it has the serious defect of not lasting.)

Mariette was well aware of something else as well, which we can see in Plate VIII and read in its accompanying text – namely, that he owed his archaeological discoveries to local Egyptians who knew the ancient sites and cemeteries so well. I’ve sometimes seen Plate VIII published online or in histories of Egyptology, cropped just to show Mariette posing at the apex of the image, gazing knowingly, even possessively, at the Old Kingdom tomb statue that has been set there for the purpose of the photograph. But scroll up and look at it again: at the bottom left, facing directly to the camera, is an Egyptian man flanked by two young boys, one of whom holds a basket, a sign of the lowliest job in archaeology – moving dirt. None of the Egyptians engage directly with an ancient object in the way that Mariette does.

Yet Mariette tells us exactly who the man was and why he mattered: this is Roubi (in Mariette’s spelling), who had worked with Mariette for six years by this point and to whom, says Mariette, ‘science owes a quarter of the monuments that are the wealth of the Boulaq Museum.’ The praise is tempered by patronizing remarks, no surprise given the racism inherent in colonial archaeology: ‘This illiterate fellah has seen so many antiques that he knows them, and, as best he can, he knows how to distinguish them by their period; he has searched so many tombs and so many wells, that no one is more able than he to discover a track and, what is much more difficult, to follow it.’ [my emphasis]

For all that Roubi earned Mariette’s respect, he was also inevitably constrained by Mariette’s assumption that no Egyptian could know ancient Egypt the way a European could know ancient Egypt. Search the internet or any history of Egyptology and you are bound to find Mariette’s name. Search for Roubi’s, in any script or any spelling, and you will draw a blank.

A photograph is the physical trace of a social encounter. How complicated social encounters are, and how closely we need to look to see what is right in front of our eyes.


[1] You can read more about Mariette and the founding of the Egyptian antiquities service in Donald Malcolm Reid’s excellent Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I (University of California Press, 2003).

[2] The best summary of Moures’ career that I’ve found is his French Wikipedia page, with a list of further sources (all in French).

[3] See Mirjam Brusius, ‘Photography’s Fits and Starts: The Search for Antiquity and Its Image in Victorian Britain’, History of Photography 40.3 (2016), 250-66. On the invention and early development of photography, see Tanya Sheehan and Andres Zervigon (eds), Photography and its Origins. New York: Routledge, 2015; and Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography. London and Boston: The MIT Press, 1997. 

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