Lost Egypt: Photography and the Early Documentation of Egyptian Monuments

by The Epigraphic Survey, Oriental Institute

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View the photographs, reproduced in Volume I of the Lost Egypt portfolios, taken in Egypt between 1880 and 1930.
ithin ten months of the official announcement of the invention of photography in 1839, two Frenchmen, Horace Vernet and Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet, began making daguerreotypes in Egypt. Their image of the harem gate of Mehmet Ali at Alexandria is probably the first photograph made in Egypt, and caused a sensation when exhibited in Paris due to its suggestive subject matter. Thus opened a remarkable chapter in the documentation of the monuments of Egyptian civilization.

Early photographic processes were laborious and not at all suited chemically to the climate of Egypt, requiring unusual dexterity and patience; all of them had limitations. Daguerreotypes were positive images on copper plates; publishers issued collections of engravings and aquatints based on them, but the daguerreotypes themselves could not be mass reproduced. As a result of his experience with the daguerreotype in Egypt, for example, one photographically inclined traveler expressed his relief that several of his friends were artists. After 1850, most of the photographers working in Egypt made use of the wet collodion process. Using this method, the photographer spread collodion evenly over one side of a sheet of glass, dipped the glass in silver nitrate in order to coat the surface with photo-sensitive silver salts, hurriedly exposed the wet plate, and developed and then fixed the glass negative, hopefully still wet. To this frenetic and closely paced process, the Egyptian climate often added the horrors of boiling chemicals, pouring sweat, desiccating heat, and blasting sand. The necessary materials required a wagon which the photographer dragged with him everywhere--some of the Egyptians imagined with admiration that Francis Frith's photographic wagon housed his gorgeous wives, whom he jealously and watchfully brought with him on all his photographic excursions. In the 1850s and 1860s, Louis de Clerq used the outmoded calotype process instead of glass plates, perhaps in the interest of traveling light.

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View the photographs, reproduced in Volume II of the Lost Egypt portfolios, taken in Egypt between 1880 and 1930.
Photography was further revolutionized by the introduction of more accessible and more portable materials. Dry gelatin-coated glass plates entered the market after 1880, eliminating the need for a photographic wagon trade. At the turn of the century, roll film and hand-held cameras made every traveler his (or her) own photographer, at which point touristic and scientific photography took their separate ways.

Photographers of the nineteenth century were not bound to document monuments in a systematic fashion, but instead were making records of their voyages and experimenting with the infant camera. At times, however, a monument may still be available only through the work of early photographers. In order to get what information exists on the birth house of Cleopatra VII at Armant, one must consult the albums of Frith, for the small temple was torn down to build a sugar factory shortly after his visit. In 1859 Frith became the first photographer in Nubia. There he took views of the temple of Amenhotep III at Soleb, a monument that remains virtually unpublished. For Armant and Soleb, Frith's pioneering documentation is ineffably precious.

Although many archaeological expeditions of the nineteenth century included photography as an aspect of recording, graphic artists remained at the heart of expeditions dedicated to epigraphy, the recording of monumental scenes and hieroglyphic inscriptions. Partly this was due to the limitations of publication, but the technique of photography itself imposed its own strict bounds. The camera gives photography what Frith termed its "essential truthfulness," but it is a selective truthfulness, in epigraphy often deceptive and ultimately not truthful. A photograph necessarily shows a portion of a monument under a single set of lighting conditions. On a carved wall, for example, lines inscribed parallel to the angle of light will tend to disappear, while elsewhere, small scratches can cast dark and deceptive shadows. For this reason, interpretive drawings that emphasize the original decoration of the wall--and that artificially minimize extraneous damage--are the definitive documents, which photography can only complement. In the modern study of Egyptian monuments, older photographs are an invaluable tool. Often, with their help, the bubbles on the surface of a salt-encrusted block may emerge as the deformed but yet recognizable forms of a human head or a snatch of inscription. Even general views and landscape shots contain decisive information. The pits, trenches, and debris dumps of archaeological excavations have altered the original terrain of Thebes and other sites. Wadis are filled in, and mounds stand where once none existed. Though even in the mid-nineteenth century the monuments and landscapes of Egypt were veiled beneath ruined architecture and medieval detritus, early pre-excavation photographs give us the best idea of the possible ancient topography of a site. This can assist in the interpretation of Egyptian texts, and in understanding the influence of the immediate landscape on the design and appearance of individual Egyptian monuments.

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View the photographs, reproduced in Volume III of the Lost Egypt portfolios, taken in Egypt between 1880 and 1930.
The glass plate collection from which these portfolio images were produced was purchased in Luxor in 1987 from a local vendor, with the purpose of augmenting the photographic archives of the Epigraphic Survey and its documentary record of Egyptian monuments, particularly those in the Theban area. The prints of the Lost Egypt portfolio series were produced at Chicago House, the field headquarters of the Survey in Luxor.

Unlike other methods of reproduction, in which an artificial light source is used on a mass-production basis, the glass negatives have been exposed individually to direct sunlight on printing-out paper, resulting in miniscule differences among the prints. Depending on the density of the negative and the strength of the sun, exposure times varied between five minutes and two hours. Each print was then toned in a gold chloride solution. This step determined the final color of the image. To insure the permanence of the image, the print was fixed in two separate sodium thiosulfate baths after toning, and finally the print was placed in a water bath. The dried prints were then mounted using archival materials. Great care has been taken to produce prints that would have resembled closely those that one might have purchased while journeying through Egypt in the nineteenth century.

To learn more about the Lost Egypt portfolios, including how to support the Oriental Institute by purchasing these volumes or individual photographic prints, visit the description on their website.

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Oriental Institute

Epigraphic Survey

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | The Epigraphic Survey, Oriental Institute

The Epigraphic Survey, based at Chicago House in Luxor, Egypt, is directed by W. Raymond Johnson, Ph.D., Research Associate (assistant professor). The mission of the Survey since its founding in 1924 has been to produce photographs and precise line drawings of the inscriptions and relief scenes on major temples and tombs at Luxor for publication. More recently the Survey has expanded its program to include conservation. In addition to the field director, the professional staff of the Survey normally includes three to four epigraphers, four to five artists, two photographers, a librarian, and several conservators. The epigraphers and artists include both graduate students and post-doctoral scholars who have received training in all aspects of Egyptology.

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