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Photography & media

Photographic delights

— July 2012

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

Associated media

Francis Frith, 'The Statues of Memnon' in Lower Egypt, Thebes and the Pyramids (1862), albumen print

Photography and Archaeology

By Frederick N. Bohrer

This is a beautiful book containing many gorgeous photographs and it is a delight to handle. It covers a broad range of material and will widen the horizons of readers familiar with standard histories of photography. The reader will be encouraged to dig more deeply into the archaeological publications of the past to discover more photographic delights. Having said that, its text should be treated with great caution as it is based on a popular but false premise that photographs ‘do’ things and can adopt ways of seeing. It needs to be said that the creators and users of photographs are the ones who can do such things. When the author speaks of photographs as ‘doing things’, he is talking about his personal responses to them. The things that he finds them doing are his projections into them of the things they mean to him.

The text is marred by convoluted prose and is not exactly a delight to read. Archaeological photography can encompass photographs of both objects and sites of archaeological interest. The categories of photography can include travel documentary, topography, archaeological documentation, documentary photography about the activities of archaeologists, early picturesque photography as fine art and contemporary fine art photography with an archaeological theme. Professional photographers and archaeologists  themselves have clear ideas of what they are up to but taken out of context the photographs can mean pretty much what their spectators can take them to mean. Amateur photographers, including professional archaeologists, can take snaps simply as memorabilia.

A book on archaeology and photography that simply uses photographs as illustrations strips them bare of their context. They become objects of aesthetic interest available for literary reflection, commentary and excuses for a variety of meditations.

A thread that runs through the book is the value of the photograph for archaeological research. The author rightly explains that the technical restrictions of reproductive print technology meant that in its earliest years photographs were used as a basis for drawings that could then go into print. The situation was transformed by the invention of photolithography, as the writer Walter Benjamin observed. With the invention of photographic books, pictures of Egypt and the like, photographs became available to the encyclopaedic imagination. They could be picturesque or they could be ‘scientific’, in the way of early ethnographic imagery.

A further use would be instrumental to archaeologists’ technical interests and consequently phenomenally boring to the non-specialist. Some of the most visually boring but archaeologically useful photographs I have recently encountered were made by researchers from the Ny Carlsberg Gyptotek project ‘Tracking Colour’, investigating the Greek and Roman’s use of polychromy in their sculpture. Only a technical specialist would want to look at them. The dominant use of beautiful and artistic photographs in this book presents a distorted picture of the practice of archaeological photography. Ironically, that is the book’s major asset.

Photography and Archaeology by Frederick N. Bohrer is published by Reaktion Books  2011.  192 pp. 91 mono and colour illus. ISBN:978-1-86189-870-8


Richard Woodfield
Editor of the Journal of Art Historiography

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