Carver, Martin, Antiquity
Photography is archaeology's partner, not its servant. We grew up together, played together on the sunny slopes of Greece and together explored the fetid jungles of Guatemala. One hundred and fifty years on, has some of the poetry departed from our relationship? Maybe it's become too easy. We are far from the heroic days when finely-jointed wooden cameras, tripods and trunks full of glass plates were lugged across country on the back of a mule. Maybe it's become too cheap. Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre used highly polished silver-coated copper plates and Henry Fox-Talbot (1800-1877) called his negatives calotypes--'beautiful forms'. Even the preparation of a wet-collodion, a syrupy emulsion poured onto the glass plate just before exposure, invokes the joys of a mystic craft. Perhaps photography has stopped being cuisine and turned into tinned food. Nowadays we have colour, we have depth of field, we have precision, we have telephotos, we have panoramic, soft focus, digital, video, we have everything. And yet, how often do we hear expressions of pleasure and amazement at the quality of nineteenth century archaeological photographs, in comparison to our own?
Such pleasure is offered in profusion in a new book of photographs collected by Marion True and Weston Naef of the J. Paul Getty Museum and published by Thames and Hudson*. Archaeology provided some of photography's earliest models. Fox Talbot himself was a physicist with an interest in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, and he pressed archaeologists to use his apparatus in the field: "I should think it would be highly interesting to take a view of each remnant of antiquity before removing it," he presciently remarked in 1846. Between 1842 and 1845 Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey produced up to a thousand daguerreotypes of Classical and Egyptian monuments and the daguerreotypist Jules Itier travelled as far as China in 1842. From 1860, August Le Plongeon became the first recorder of Inca structures in Peru and went on to make the first panoramic stereographs of Maya temple glyphs at Chichen Itza and Uxmal in the Yucatan of Mexico in 1873. In 1870, William James Stillman, the subject of a special feature in the book by Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, produced his masterpiece The Acropolis of Athens.
These beautiful and evocative photographs do give us pause. Perhaps we like them because they are themselves archaeological artefacts. The scratches and blots on the aged prints have the feel of discovery about them. We might leaf rapidly through a glossy magazine of perfect nothings, but these old documents have the whiff of research. Personally, I always find black and white photographs much more interesting than colour. Why? Is it the unstated, the understated or the yet undiscovered that moves us? Perhaps it's just the nostalgia for a lost first love that lets us prefer an old print to a digital--like those lecturers that grumble that PowerPoint does not have the definition (or the comforting clunk) of a projected Kodachrome 64 slide.
The answer surely is much simpler: we have given up composing. The early photographers were emulating paintings, employing the arts of two millennia to compose a landscape in its "Golden Section", those satisfying proportions of visual scale that remain as puzzlingly fundamental to humans as the scales of music. We are no longer taught how to do this at school, and so it's hardly surprising that the modern archaeologist does not know how to point a camera.
For the last few years I have been wondering how we at Antiquity might encourage the archaeological world to enhance its pictures--pictures on which the health and fame of our subject so depends. Thinking that nothing leads better than example, I sent letters to our correspondents asking them to discover the best practitioners in the field, and to beg them to send us their finest photographs. The results have been stupendous, and we will offer a few of them every issue, following the editorial. …