Photography and History

Sitting uncomfortably

I have written on this blog before about ‘being undisciplined’ – that is, working across and in between academic disciplines. It is harder than it looks, and all the more so when that research takes you to uncomfortable places. Places of deep reflection and self-critique. Places that made me question myself, my education, and my choice of career. Places that keep pushing me to think hard about hard topics and to exemplify, as best I can, ethical practice in my own research, professionalism, and public communication.

It’s also difficult to realize that some of the research I’ve produced, or the ideas that I’ve tried my best to convey, don’t chime with the interests of the discipline in which I trained and worked early in my career (Egyptology as practiced in institutions of ‘the West’ or ‘Global North’). To the extent that my work and that of other historians is read or heard within Egyptology, it can inspire a certain confusion, defensiveness, or disbelief, as if we historians might be making things up or simply aren’t equipped to appreciate Egyptological ways of doing things. I hold fast to the wise advice that valued colleagues have given me over the years: it isn’t my job to make Egyptologists feel comfortable.

Yesterday, at the invitation of an Egyptian colleague, the community engagement specialist and researcher Fatma Keshk, I gave a version of the text below to a conference on the ‘history’ of Egyptology. This isn’t new research on my part, simply an attempt to share some basic ideas and observations with an audience largely comprising Egyptologists of one kind or another. I post it here in case people would like to see the written form and a selection of the images.

Histories of Photography and Egyptology: Research, Voices, Critique

‘There can be no thinking of history that is not at the same time a thinking of photography.’ This statement, from the preface of Eduardo Cadava’s book Words of Light, sums up well the inseparability of photographic technologies and historiography – the writing of history.[1] The study of the ancient past – the very idea of what was ancient – took shape over the course of the 19th century through photography. Without it, there would be no Egyptology, and without grappling with photographs and photographic archives, there is no way to think and write the histories of the field. That is not because photographs ‘show’ history: far from it. As my students are by now used to hearing me say, photographs matter not for what they show, but for what they do; for what photography makes possible, and impossible; and for the ways in which taking, developing, printing, reprinting, enlarging, sharing, mounting, labelling, cutting, folding, losing, copying, copyrighting, reproducing, archiving, digitizing, cataloguing, tagging, and (now, unfortunately) colourizing photographs has – for more than 150 years – created and recreated ideas of knowledge, forged disciplinarity identities, and negotiated social relations, which are also power relations.

Photographs matter, as many institutions of Egyptology recognize. Most major institutes and museums associated with the discipline have sizeable photographic archives, and I have been privileged to work with several of them over the last six years, in the UK, the United States, and Italy. I cannot stress enough how helpful every archive has been and how assiduous in their care and concern for their photographic materials. However, I also cannot help but make this observation: that apart from a handful of state or civic archives, the people I dealt with in each institution were either trained as Egyptologists or were, in effect, administrators with other kinds of knowledge and responsibilities. There was no expertise specifically in the curation, archiving, history, theory, and methodologies associated with photography – all areas for which there is a thriving research- and practice-based international community. This is not unique to Egyptology. It is part of a much wider pattern, whereby photographs are so ubiquitous that they have been overlooked. But it is, I believe, a pattern and a problem found particularly in disciplines used to seeing photographs as data – as direct, empirical evidence of whatever that photograph might show. It is an ingrained habit of not seeing the photograph as a photograph, and of assuming that photographs are unmediated images, glimpses of reality that, in their abundance, somehow capture a past that is total, complete, and comprehensible.

In my talk today, I want to highlight some of the possibilities, and the pitfalls, of working with photographic materials to ‘think’ the histories (plural) of Egyptology, which entails recognizing that photographs and their associated archives contribute in complex ways to the endurance of colonialism and empire in the present – ways that are not articulated explicitly so much as implicitly, in the assumptions, choices, and narratives that accrue around archives. As Will Carruthers discussed in his paper yesterday, archives are not, never were, and never will be neutral. They are uncomfortable places – and so they should be, when we are often dealing with colonial, imperial, racialized and racist practices. Discomfort is a great teacher. Moreover, for many Egyptian, Nubian, and Sudanese researchers, archives can be places of trauma, which makes it all the more inexplicable to me that anyone would see them as places of data extraction. For this reason, I have applied screens, or masks, on a couple of the images I show, and I ask everyone please not to screengrab or otherwise capture my slides.[2]

I used this example to open a talk I gave at a fascinating photography conference several years ago, now published Open Access here, by the Max-Planck-Institut for History of Science, in Berlin.

I’m going to start with one of the pitfalls: it’s this double-page spread from a catalogue of ‘photographic treasures’ published five years ago by the French archaeological institute in Cairo, founded in 1880. I assume that these images were paired based on formal similarities between the two faces they represent, one ceramic, one human. There is no other relationship between them except that they are two of the thousands of negatives in the IFAO archive. At the back of the book, the editors give the dimensions, media, and catalogue numbers of the negatives, and lament the lack of information otherwise available. On YouTube, the book’s publication was announced with a short film soundtracked by vaguely North African- or Middle-Eastern-sounding music, by the same Australian performer whose work featured in the film Gladiator.

Archaeological archives, and their hundreds of thousands of photographs, must be among the most substantial archives formed during the colonial era, yet neither the concept nor any critique of colonialism has managed to stick to them. Archives, and perhaps photographic archives in particular (or most obviously), continue to be seen within Egyptology as direct and unmediated sources of information about a site or an artefact, or as evocations of a golden age. Anyone familiar with thirty or more years of research in photography studies would not have made this pairing, with its obvious overtones of ethnographic objectification. Perhaps the pairing came about from a certain misapprehension that the most fashionable way of studying photographs is through their formal and aesthetic qualities, as works of art. That is certainly one discourse that has shaped histories of photography and especially the collecting of photographs by art museums. Those practices have their own histories: for example, the Paris-based American photographer John Beasley Greene made photographs in Algeria and Egypt in the 1850s which barely circulated at the time, but were re-discovered by the influential Museum of Modern Art curator Beaumont Newhall in the 1970s and became desirable collectors’ items.

My iPhone study shot of a mounted print – perhaps by Harry Burton – based on an 18×24 cm glass negative (TAA 1354); both are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The photograph shows Howard Carter and one of the Egyptian archaeologists who worked closely with him in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Probably taken on October 30th, 1925.

It was also in the 1970s that the work of Harry Burton at the tomb of Tutankhamun was re-discovered, making some photographs that hadn’t been well-known in the 1920s newly famous (like the example you see here). Burton’s work, too, has been talked about as if he were an artist and his images, works of art. But as my own research has demonstrated, that was not how he or his colleagues talked and thought about what he was doing.[3]

If labelling images as ‘art’ isn’t very helpful for understanding photography, neither is the idea that something called ‘archaeological photography’ exists, born out of some scientific impulse in the mid-19th century and developing in an ever-more-perfect form ever since. Take this photograph (above) by Théodule Devéria, an engraver, lithographer, photographer, and Egyptologist at the Louvre, invited by Auguste Mariette, in 1858, to accompany him up the Nile on the Egyptian government steamboat. Where Devéria photographed something we might identify as an archaeological process – a tomb chapel more or less cleared of sand – the resulting image belies the excavation methods that would became standard 30 or 40 years later. In the drifts of sand that run through and behind this doorway, we see the impressions of endless feet treading back and forth. Perhaps in part because the camera made a feature like these footsteps seem more prominent, future archaeologists insisted that features be swept clean.[4] 

Many photographs that wind up in archaeological archives don’t seem to serve the purposes defined for excavation photography by figures like Flinders Petrie. Hence archives feature photographs of clouds (in Petrie Album 8, for instance), natural features, and local life not very specific to fieldwork – yet he (and others) took them, numbered them, and mounted them in albums that were circulated to colleagues, with instructions on how to purchase prints. In another album, its prints unmounted for conservation, we see Petrie photographs of what he called ‘modern’ Egypt: not trains, hospitals, or British military camps, but rural scenes, people he employed, or in an image taken surreptitiously, with a mirror, of two small girls sitting on the ground. ‘The scavengers’ daughters, taken unawares’, Petrie’s hand-scrawled caption reads.[5]

Photographs by Harry Burton, mounted and labelled by him, perhaps in 1924.

People are everywhere in the photographic archives of Egyptology – even when they are not in the photos. Photography is a social act, from the taking of the photograph – who was involved, how do people behave when a camera appears – to the subsequent processes of sharing, or not sharing, the images produced. The photography of objects – like these bead and textile fragments from Tutankhamun’s wardrobe – may seem to be those data sets and information sources for which empirical scholarship longs.

Photographs by Francis and Nora Griffith, mounted in one of six albums associated with the Sanam Cemetery, Sudan, where they worked just before World War 1. (c) The Griffith Institute, Oxford University.

Here are the facts, after all – beads and small finds photographed on a ground glass surface and the negatives, or sometimes prints, afterwards marked up with tomb numbers, find numbers, negative numbers, print numbers, so many numbers that we might start to believe there is safety in them after all. And yet, an Egyptologist who consulted these archives in Oxford for of the Sanam cemetery lamented in a published study, ‘The visual documentation is very poor: only a few photographs were done in the field, thus we have few pictures of the tombs themselves.’[6] There are, in fact, about 600 photographs taken by Francis and Nora Griffith in two seasons of work at the site, which stood near the railway line and military camp associated with the British conquest of Sudan and the imposition of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. They did photograph burials, bones, and small finds, but they also photographed the surroundings, work in progress, and market day.

Reading their publications, or more recent studies, however, one finds no mention of a series of photographs, in the very same albums, of nine boys from the Shaigia ethnic group of northern Sudan, photographed in their underclothes straight on and in left-facing profile, which, among other things, shows their scarification and exemplifies the ‘type’ photograph of racial science, which dominated European academia at the time.[7] If you are an Egyptologist or archaeologist today, you can study a place called Sanam Cemetery without ever knowing, or at least acknowledging, that such photographs exist.

Photographs perhaps had their biggest impact with the development of halftone printing and the boom in print media in the late 19th century – phenomena that, like photography itself, were global.[8] What would a history of Egyptology look like based on photographs taken by Egyptian photographers, not just the many Egyptians who took photographs on archaeological sites and ran photography studios, but also from personal contexts, like internal tourism, and in the Egyptian press – I have to thank the historian Lucie Ryzova for sending me these images just last month. Working with material like this, or with photographs in Egyptian institutions and family archives, would be a fantastic avenue of research (and I know a couple of people doing this). The point is not to try to write a totalizing, ‘complete’ history of Egyptology (which is impossible, in any case – and that’s not what historians do). One could imagine, instead, the emergence of counter-archives and new narratives to start replacing the tired, teleological histories that are still being written and embraced within the field.

In the past year, I’ve seen two jobs advertised for archival projects in western Egyptological institutions, both of which specified qualifications in Egyptology. I have to wonder, why? My advice to anyone interested in studying and writing histories of Egyptology, or any other discipline, is to look outside that discipline, to fields of study that can give you the tools to do that – history, art history, anthropology, or cultural heritage and museum studies, for instance. Egyptology should be able to understand and reflect on its own histories, of course – and if it did, would find itself, I think, radically changed – perhaps even no longer calling itself ‘Egyptology’.

Print by the Lekegian studio ,ca. 1880, mounted in one of the Tupper scrapbooks compiled in the 1890s, held in the Boston Public Library.
For a study of these albums, see Alison Nordström, “Making a Journey: The Tupper Scrapbooks and the Travel They Describe.” In: Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, edited by Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, pp. 81-95. London: Routledge, 2004.

I’d like to end with two points – two suggestions, as it were – for working with photographic materials. They build on my earlier observation that photography, and all its permutations, are social and that archives and photographs are never neutral. So, point one: photographs are material objects, and to understand that materiality, one needs a certain technical knowledge and acritical, theoretical apparatus. Photographs come in dozens of material forms, each with its own microhistory, from the studio-produced albumen print we see here, mounted in an American tourist’s album), to the magic lantern slide; the stereograph; glass, film, and paper negatives in a different sizes depending on the kind of camera; Autochromes and other colour transparencies; plus all the associated stuff needed for storing, labelling, and filing such material. These things matter for understanding how an image was taken and what could be done with it, including how it could be shared or circulated. Without that awareness of material forms, histories, and technologies, there’s a levelling effect whereby every photographic image, which we now tend to view digitized on screens, is made identical and flattened out, erasing the considerable differences, even at the same time period, of how photographs were made and used. That’s point one.

Point two brings us back to where I started – to historiography, the writing of history in a photographic age that is now a digital age. I don’t like to speak of photographs as sources for history: they are so much more than that. Understanding their materiality, their means of production and circulation, and their historical distance from us, as well as their contemporary lives, is crucial. Holders of photographic archives have a responsibility not simply to preserve what they have, but to engage with contemporary issues around photographs, archives, and the wider ramifications of photographic research and digitalization. An example, which is a preview of a keynote I’m giving next week: earlier (above), I showed my iPhone study snapshot of a print by Harry Burton, made from a glass negative, only one of which exists, and it’s in New York.

There is a second negative, in Oxford, but it’s a copy negative – a photograph of a photograph. One photograph will look very different depending on such factors, which are then compounded by digitization, often done from glass negatives that are reversed to make a positive. There are numerous processes here, which involve both humans and machines; digitization adds another layer of mediation to photographs – and can further obscure the historicity of the photograph itself.

Digital colourization ignores both the material qualities and historical distance of photographs. It purports to extract information about colour that simply does not exist in monochrome images. Monochrome images do have highlights and contrasts, but that depends on who prints them, and is clearly reduced in the copy negative version. The result is that the 2015 colourization of this image (scroll down at that link to see the one I mean) – based on the digitized copy negative – gives Howard Carter’s skin a range of cream, pink, and tan tones, while the ra’is with him is a near-solid block of brown. Like other colourized images, this one now turns up online, in picture libraries, and in print and social media without the colourization being acknowledged. That should concern anyone who cares about history, photography, and facts.

I hope I have given you some idea of why histories of Egyptology are histories of photography, and why they require appropriate methodologies, knowledge, and expertise from outside Egyptology. Photographs themselves are material and social objects, not direct windows on the past. Without a critical approach, camera work and photographs are too easily instrumentalized in the service of Egyptological myth-making.

Auguste Mariette. Voyage en Haute-Egypte. Cairo: Mourès, 1878, pl. VIII.
Photographer unknown; photogravure by Goupil & Cie

A final example here, a photograph as it was published in high-quality photogravure for a book by Auguste Mariette, who wrote this description of the plate in language typically dismissive of, and patronizing towards, Egyptian colleagues and interlocutors:

‘At the left are two of the little basket-carriers who are the principal instrument of our excavations, and in the middle is Roubi, their boss, whose qualities make him very precious to us. After six years employed by the Museum, this illiterate peasant has seen so many antiquities that he knows them well and knows, to the best of his abilities, how to distinguish them by date; he has searched so many tombs and so many wells, that no one is more able than he is to discover a trace and follow it. Science must owe Roubi a quarter of the monuments that constitute the wealth of the Museum of Boulaq.’

A 2010 biography of Mariette, written by an Egyptologist, reproduced this photograph – but cropped Roubi and the basket boys out of the picture, without any comment at all.[9]

Mine the archives of Egyptology for data, if that’s your idea of what history is. But what better, more robust, and more challenging histories could be written – and are being written – by thinking critically about historiography, and by thinking with photography.


[1] Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: These on the Photography of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. Look out for the forthcoming book – ‘a short primer’, she calls it – by photographic historian Elizabeth Edwards, which engages with Cadava’s ideas (among many others): Photographs and the Practice of History. London: Bloomsbury, forthcoming winter 2021-22.

[2] I highly recommend this article by Temi Odumosu: ‘The Crying Child: On Colonial Archives, Digitization, and Ethics of Care in the Cultural Commons’, Current Anthropology 61 S22 (2020), S289-S302.

[3] In my book Photographing Tutankhamun: Archaeology, Ancient Egypt, and the Archive. London: Bloomsbury/Routledge, 2019.

[4] I discuss this example in a chapter called ‘Archaeology and photography’, which I contributed to The Handbook of Photography Studies, edited by Gil Pasternak and published by Routledge in 2020 – an excellent starting point for photographic research.

[5] It is photograph 438. In my Powerpoint presentation, I placed a rectangle at 10% transparency over the girls’ faces.

[6] Angelika Lohwasser, The Kushite Cemetery of Sanam: A Non-Royal Burial Ground of the Nubian Capital, c. 800-600 BC. London: Golden House Publications, 2010.

[7] There is extensive literature on scientific racism and photography. See, for instance, Amos Morris-Reich, Race and Photography: Racial Photography as Scientific Evidence, 1876-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Talk about dealing with uncomfortable material. I also recommend Debbie Challis, The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

[8] Again, there is extensive literature on this. Two suggestions: Geoffrey Belknap, From a Photograph: Authenticity, Science, and the Periodical Press, 1870-1890. London: Routledge, 2019, and a fantastic article by Simone Natale on the interconnection of photograhic, communication, and transportation technologies in the 19th century.

[9] Amandine Marshall, Auguste Mariette. La bibliotheque des introuvables, 2010. I haven’t yet seen a new version by the same author, perhaps timed for the bicentennial of Mariette’s birth this year.

1 thought on “Sitting uncomfortably”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s