Photography and History, The Tutankhamun Excavation, Writing


My book, Photographing Tutankhamun, was officially published two days ago with Bloomsbury Academic in the UK and United States, and the American University of Cairo Press, for sales in Egypt. It marks a beginning and an end: the beginning for the book, to go out into the world and see what people make of it, but an end, for me, of a project I’ve lived with for more than four years now.

I have already spotted two typographic errors (both of which I know I corrected in the proofs…), plus a word changed by a well-meaning proofreader, which ruins a little joke in the acknowledgements. I think I should have done a clearer job of signalling which of the Burton-photograph figures is scanned from a negative, and which from a print. And as I’ve written about here before, I’m also aware of the sources I didn’t have the time, or language skills, to consult, not to mention those that only came to light when it was too late to add them – I plan to write something soon here on camera models, for instance. Continue reading “Endings”

Photography and History, The Tutankhamun Excavation, Writing


I hadn’t really thought about Tutankhamun, or even photography, for a couple of months while I got on with teaching something else, because that’s how academia works sometimes. But about a month ago, inevitably, Tutankhamun hove back into view. First with new research I’ve been doing on the 1972 British Museum exhibition (which I’ll write about soon), second with plans for the Cambridge version of my own ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ exhibition (which I’ll be starting to install tomorrow morning), and third, just this past week, with the proof version of my book, Photographing Tutankhamun, due out by the end of this year from Bloomsbury. The cover design was agreed months ago, to fit the style of the fantastic ‘Photography, History: History, Photography’ series in which my book will appear.


The proofs I received this week are the text inside – all 280-some pages of it, which will be closer to 300 by the time the index is done. There’s always a pain and a pleasure to this stage: the pain of little errors that have crept in, inconsistencies that escaped even a good copy-editor, or things I realize are my own fault, where I’ve changed my thinking about a phrase or word or idea. But there’s a pleasure, too, in seeing how well the text and images fit together, and in seeing one’s own words really – or almost – ‘in print’, rather than on my laptop screen or my tattered, much marked-up manuscript print-out.

Proof page 1

For me, a frustrated novelist, opening lines matter – and I always, always, write the first chapter first. So the start of Chapter 1, which you see above in the PDF proof, is the first thing I wrote for this book, when I returned to my home in Norfolk after carrying out three months of research in the Tutankhamun archives at Oxford University. I thought I was going to write a pretty straightforward book about how this most famous of archaeological finds, documented by a famous excavator, through a set of famous photographs, told us something about the relationship between archaeology and photography in 1920s Egypt. But somewhere in those archives, I had a little crisis. The kind of crisis that, fortunately, I’m now experienced enough as a researcher to know is a Good Thing. Because it takes some kind of crisis, big or small, to get to the breakthrough that shows you what your work is really about. Continue reading “Proof”

Photography and History, Writing

Being undisciplined

Given that ‘write blog’ has been on my to-do list for more than two months, not keeping up with my to-do list is clearly one way in which I’ve been undisciplined of late. That and descaling my kettle – which is steaming away with some distilled vinegar inside it as I (finally) write this post.

But there’s another way in which I feel undisciplined: having taken three university degrees in archaeology and Egyptology, it’s been a long time since I felt confident or comfortable describing myself as either an archaeologist or an Egyptologist. Sometimes, those do feel like the most apt designations of where I sit in terms of having an academic discipline. Other times, I feel more like a historian or an art historian. After all, I do work and teach in an art history department, and I have spent most of my life looking at, thinking about, talking about, and writing about the past and what survives of it in the present. Continue reading “Being undisciplined”

Photography and History, The Tutankhamun Excavation, Writing

The machete stage

I wrote to a colleague the other day, telling him that I was at the machete stage with the manuscript of my next book, Photographing Tutankhamun. He understood. It’s the stage where you go back through the manuscript you’ve been working on for (in my case) almost two years and realize that you’ve written too much, or put things in the wrong order, or come up with something that might sound nice, or be interesting, but that just doesn’t take your argument forward. So, the machete has to go through the jungle of words. In case there are any treasures among all the greenery I’ve cut back, I keep a file called ‘junked’ for each chapter (or article or story) that I’ve ever written, for as long as I can remember. But I confess, I rarely look at those files. They hang around on my laptop, probably a little relieved to be set free from my cutting and pasting, my deleting and ‘undo’-ing, or my staring at them until it’s time for a coffee break.

Sometimes I have to put the machete down for a day or two, when I reach an unexpected clearing in the manuscript: a place where I’ve failed to write the bit that is clearly needed for the sake of the argument, perhaps because I forgot what the argument was at that point, went for a coffee, and decided (ever the optimist) that it would sort it itself out while I got on with the rest of the chapter. Today was a day that mixed both: I had to take the machete to a few hundred words that trailed off into notes, leaving a big clearing where I could try out a different example and come at the problem from a different direction. A thousand words later, while the messy world went on around me, I think the new direction works. Continue reading “The machete stage”