A Picture of the Past: Geo Photo: The World's Archaeological Wonders Have Been Drawing Photographers since the Very Birth of the Discipline

By Wilson, Keith | Geographical, April 2007 | Go to article overview

A Picture of the Past: Geo Photo: The World's Archaeological Wonders Have Been Drawing Photographers since the Very Birth of the Discipline


Wilson, Keith, Geographical


When US explorer Hiram Bingham clambered up the Urubamba Valley in the central Andes on 24 July 1911, he became the first person to lay eyes on the ruins of Machu Picchu. Bingham's first action wasn't to write down his thoughts in a notebook, nor to sketch a plan of this lost city of the Incas. Instead, he started taking photographs.

Bingham stayed only a few hours, but it was long enough for him to expose 31 plates. He knew he would return for a longer, more intensive expedition because the pictures would excite enough archaeologists, museums and philanthropists to provide the necessary finance. And so it was that the following summer, having secured sponsorship from Kodak founder George Eastman and others, Bingham returned to Machu Picchu and recorded every corner of this extraordinary site. On his return, Bingham had enough photographs to fill an entire issue of National Geographic. In short, it was Bingham's photographs that put Machu Picchu on the map.

Victorian pioneers

The significance of photography to the recording of important archaeological sites didn't begin at Machu Picchu. Almost immediately after the first public demonstration of photography in Paris in 1839, expeditions were made to the world's great archaeological sites to photograph what had previously been trusted to pen, ink and the artist's eye. The myriad ancient sites of Athens, Rome, Palestine and Egypt were soon being documented in detail by this wondrous new invention.

Over the next two decades, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, Francis Frith, Robert Macpherson and other pioneering photographers travelled through the lands of the Mediterranean with copious quantities of cameras, lenses, plates and chemicals, capturing images of antiquity. Frith was particularly prodigious, conducting extensive tours of Egypt and Palestine that would culminate in a series of albums that excited academia and society in equal measure.

More than any other photographer of the time, Frith helped spawn the popular interest in ancient sites, particularly in Egypt, that was to trigger the Victorian 'grand tours' of Europe and the Holy Lands, and with it the birth of tourism. Frith was canny enough to depict scale by placing people in positions that added to the ruins' marvel. His 1859 plate Colossal Sculpture at Abu Simbel, for example, only fits the title because of the inclusion of two robed locals--one standing, one sitting--on the monument's knees.

Modern approaches

Nearly 150 years on, Frith's techniques still resonate in today's popular images of Egypt's greatest sites. However, any archaeological worth has all but disappeared from today's images; of greater importance is photography that meets the needs of a growing tourist trade. For Egypt, Greece, Italy and Turkey, the archaeological sites of the 19th century have become the tourist attractions of the 21st. Yet even at the most visited sites, excavations continue, and the role of photography to record and identify artefacts remains as important as ever.

At ground level, the basic needs of the photograph remain much the same as they were for Frith and Bingham: a tripod to provide a stable base for the camera; precise focusing; accurate composition with a sense and measure of scale; and distortion-free lenses.

Aerial photography

After the Second World War, aerial photography began to benefit many of the earth sciences, including archaeology, as images taken from reconnaissance aircraft were used to map the terrain of Europe. During the war, Spitfire pilots used cameras in the fuselage that could produce 1:12,000 scale images from a height of 30,000 feet (9,144 metres).

When the war was over, aerial photographs were used for archaeological and geological surveys, and helped scientists gain a better understanding of a historic site's position in relation to the landscape. However, even when photographed from the air, the purpose of some ancient monuments can remain a mystery, Stonehenge being a prime example. …

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