Photography and History, The Tutankhamun Excavation

Camera Men

When I started to work on the history of photography, I was painfully aware of my limited technical knowledge of cameras, lenses, and development processes. I will never be the person to ask for advice about an f-stop.

Fortunately, several photographers who have worked with older camera technology have been generous with their knowledge, helping me understand the basic principles of working a view camera – the type of camera Harry Burton used throughout his career. Ian Cartwright, the photographer at the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford University (and himself an astute observer of Burton’s work), took me through the steps with his own American-made large-plate camera. View cameras consist of a front and rear standard, connected by a bellows. The front standard holds the lens, while the back accommodates the negative holder and the ground glass, an inset plate of frosted glass on which the photographer can see the image the lens will produce, but flipped upside down. The front and rear standards can be adjusted independently of each other, moving up and down; tilting forward and back; or swinging at an angle to the left or right. These movements give the photographer a range of control over the image, especially helpful for ‘squaring up’ straight lines in the photograph when they would otherwise seem to diverge (the edges of a building or a box, for instance). Seductive as it is to think that a camera reproduces what a human eye can see, a camera in fact reproduces what the lens sees, which is not the same thing at all.

A Lincoln-based photographer who collects and uses older cameras – and who visited the ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ exhibition in Lincoln – got in touch via this website to say how much he’d enjoyed it (thank you, Gerard!) and to offer further observations. Since the exhibition used digital scans of Burton’s original glass plates, without any cropping, he could tell that some of the negative holders Burton was using had seen a good bit of wear-and-tear, which had allowed flecks of light to reach the edge of the negative within. This wouldn’t have mattered when Burton printed them, but it became obvious when the negatives were scanned and digitally printed, showing the entire surface of the glass plate. That’s something I would never have known how to explain otherwise. Like archaeology and photography themselves, academic research isn’t a solitary endeavour but a collective effort. Expertise is, potentially, everywhere.

Double-page spread from The Sphere, 10 February 1923, in the University Library, Cambridge University (author’s photograph).

Because Burton – like many photographers – was more often behind the camera than in front of it, only a handful of still photographs show him at work, much less posing with the tools of his trade. What a nice surprise, then, to come across a double-page spread from The Sphere newspaper, kept among a box of archaeology-related clippings that were awaiting cataloguing at the University Library, Cambridge University. The Sphere was a weekly illustrated newspaper in the first half of the 20th century, and the main competitor in Britain to the Illustrated London News. It was to the News that Howard Carter gave preferential access and permission to use Harry Burton’s photographs from the Tutankhamun excavation. But of course The Sphere wanted to cover the story too, using photographs from different sources.

Harry Burton, one of his Egyptian assistants (name unknown), and the Sinclair camera, photographed for The Sphere, 10 February 1923 (cropped from the previous image).

I used The Sphere’s photograph of Burton and one of his Egyptian assistants in a lecture I gave last year at Harvard University, which was made available online. Not long afterwards, I received an email from William Joy, of the Peggy Joy Egyptology Library in Michigan, USA – an incredible resource of published and archival material, run privately and available via high-quality digitization to interested researchers.[1] William had watched my lecture and recognized Burton’s camera straight away, thanks to the distinctive name plate over the lens. He wrote to share the information: Burton’s camera was a Sinclair ‘Una’ model, made by the British firm of James A. Sinclair, headquartered in the 1920s in Haymarket in the heart of London. William could also identify the camera case in The Sphere photograph, made by Westminster Photographic Exchange in Charing Cross Road. Lord Carnarvon used an ‘Una’, too, and examples of this camera model – and sometimes the cases – are today well-represented in museum and private collections, including the National Media Museum in Bradford, England (which also owns Howard Carter’s own Graflex camera).

The Sinclair ‘Una’ with a Westminster case and two dark slides (negative holders). From; many more images available online, too.

That fit perfectly what I’d already discovered about Burton’s and Carter’s patronage of Sinclair for photographic supplies: Howard Carter’s glass lantern slides and photo albums in the Griffith Institute bear Sinclair stickers, and Burton’s correspondence in the Metropolitan Museum of Art sometimes concern orders that needed to be placed for the Museum’s excavations, which Sinclair’s would ship to Egypt for the autumn start of the fieldwork season. I also knew that Burton used Sinclair’s ‘Kine’ camera for moving-picture footage, in part for his work at the tomb of Tutankhamun, but also for other film footage that the Metropolitan Museum used to help promote their work to audiences in New York.[2]

The Sinclair ‘Una’ was a respected model for experienced photographers. It took quarter- and half-plate negatives, so this may be the camera Burton used for those Tutankhamun negatives that survive in half-plate sizes, both metric 13×18 cm and imperial 4 ¾ inches x 6 ½ inches. Sinclair also made cameras that could take negatives as large as 12 x 15 inches, but which would have been adaptable for Burton’s preferred 18×24 cm negatives, if he also sourced his large-plate camera there.

A 1925 catalogue of Sinclair products. From; see link immediately below.

A 1925 catalogue of Sinclair products shows the larger, ‘technical’ camera the firm made – and is a useful reminder of the historical and political context in which the Tutankhamun excavation took place. The Sinclair catalogue proudly declares that it had supplied technical cameras to the UK government’s War Department, ‘His Majesty’s Indian Government’, and ‘The Crown Agents for the Colonies’. The British Empire was in full swing, even if some countries had managed, with considerable struggle, to start tilting away from British control.[3] One of those countries was Egypt, whose government was another Sinclair client.

Transnational connections, and imperial assumptions, informed a trip that James Sinclair himself made to the Sudan and Egypt in 1930. His letters home, kept as a journal of the voyage, are also in the Peggy Joy Egyptology Library, and William Joy shared the text of the journal with me. Sinclair may have left his workplace behind in London, but he took photography with him. There was only one day, towards the end of the journey, when he did not take a photograph. On most days, Sinclair took several, setting out for long walks with his camera, trying to capture what he called ‘records’. The choice of term suggests that, to Sinclair, his photographs were to be factual documents of his experiences – no matter how selective his choice of subjects proved to be.

Sinclair started his journey in Sudan, which was effectively a British possession even though it continued to be called ‘Anglo-Egyptian’ until its independence in 1955. While staying in Khartoum, Sinclair walked for three miles one day, looking to photograph stereotypical scenes of cameras and ‘isolated figures’ of indigenous people. ‘The natives’, as he termed them in the colonial language of the day, did not cooperate to his liking – but he had a right-angled finder on his camera, which allowed him to take photographs without people realizing that they were being photographed. This intrusive practice had been around for decades: W. M. F. Petrie used a diagonal mirror to photograph impoverished Egyptian girls ‘unawares’. The camera did not see with the human eye, but it certainly allowed some humans to exert power over others.

Sailing downstream to Luxor, with a short stay at Aswan, Sinclair reached Luxor in early February and checked in to the Winter Palace Hotel, where Lord Carnarvon used to stay and where the gardens were, wrote Sinclair, ‘magnificent.’ Sinclair, who had assumed that Howard Carter was in Cairo, was happy to run into him at the hotel’s afternoon tea. Carter told Sinclair that he was ‘on strike’ from working at the tomb of Tutankhamun, pending a settlement from the Egyptian government’s antiquities service to reimburse Carnarvon’s widow for the costs of the excavation.[4] He was instead busy with ‘his literary work’ (Sinclair’s words, but the voice of Carter rings true).

Sinclair had found a welcome message from Harry Burton waiting for him at the Winter Palace, and during his stay in Luxor, Sinclair ventured to the West Bank to visit Burton at the Metropolitan Museum dig house. Burton wanted some advice on the Kine camera, and Sinclair stayed on for lunch. In the afternoon, Burton and Sinclair went to visit the tomb of Queen Nefertari, whose famous paintings were already deteriorating. ‘Fortunately,’ wrote Sinclair, ‘Burton has a complete record and his managing to photograph these difficult subjects is a triumph of technical skill.’

James Sinclair had an invitation to lunch at Howard Carter’s house, too, which was ‘nice and cool’ and had insect netting at the doors and windows. Their lunch doesn’t appeal to me – caviar, cold tongue, stewed figs, and lemonade – but afterwards they visited two private tombs and the Ramesseum temple. The tomb of Tutankhamun was closed to visitors that day, so Sinclair missed the chance to see where his cameras had been put to such famous use. At a later date, Sinclair sent Carter a photogravure print of one of his photographs from Khartoum which, with several Sinclair photographs of England, became part of the Howard Carter bequest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He had more luck in Cairo, the last stop before he headed home to England. In the Cairo Museum (‘a fine building’), Sinclair visited the set of upstairs rooms dedicated to the artefacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun:

Although they were known to me by the photographs we have, I was amazed at the beauty of their workmanship. A photograph may very literally record facts, but it fails to show the spirit animating those facts.

Cameras did much more than ‘record facts’, however, as is obvious in this intertwined tale of Harry Burton’s cameras, Howard Carter’s cold tongue, and James Sinclair’s imperial pilgrimage to Egypt and Sudan. ‘To photograph is to archive a social interaction in time’, as the visual anthropologist Chris Morton has so succinctly put it.[5] Those social interactions were not based on equal exchanges, nor will we necessarily see them in a photographic image – unless we know where, and how, to look.

I don’t know if I’ll ever understand an f-stop. But we should all be trying to understand what it meant to be a camera man (or woman) in colonial- and imperial-era archaeology. Consider the social relationships, historical circumstances, and political contexts in which photographs were made and used, and it just may be that the camera never lies.


[1] I am indebted to William Joy for sharing all his information about the ‘Una’, and other Howard Carter-related nuggets, and for allowing me to read James Sinclair’s travel journal and quote from it here.

[2] For much more detail on Burton’s use of a moving-picture camera, and other photographic practices at the tomb of Tutankhamun, see Chapter 3 of my book, Photographing Tutankhamun.

[3] A good new book on anti-colonial resistance to the British empire, including Egypt, is Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire.

[4] This was the point at which Carter finally accepted that the Egyptian government had the right to keep everything from the tomb in Egypt, according to the terms of Carnarvon’s excavation contract. Instead, Carter negotiated a payment of £36,000 to  Carnarvon’s widow, reimbursing her for the costs she had sustained during years of work on the tomb. In effect, the Egyptian government bought what it already owned. Carter funded part of the remaining work on the tomb himself: he had done well financially from his best-selling books on the tomb and from other income sources, including dealing in art and antiquities.

[5] Christopher Morton, ‘Photography, Anthropology Of.’ In The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by Hilary Callan. Malden, MA and Oxford: John Wiley, 2018, p. 12.

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