The men who shot Tutankhamun
A new book by Sandro Vannini features incredible imagery of the legendary pharaoh’s tomb. Steve Fairclough takes a look at the stories behind them
A number of Egyptian photographic challenges as told by Sandro Vannini in his new book
On 4 November 1922 the historic discovery of the steps to the tomb of Tutankhamun was made in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. This day was the culmination of an eight-year search in the valley by the archaeologist Howard Carter, who initially took his own photographs of the discovery but quickly realised he required a professional photographer to document the excavation of the tomb and the artifacts within it.
As a result of Carter’s request the photographer Harry Burton was loaned to Carter’s team. In those days, Burton was shooting straight on to glass-plate negatives, which were coated with silver nitrate, with a large-format view camera. His imagery included establishing shots within the tomb to note the position of the treasures, close-ups of each artifact and evocative images such as Howard Carter inspecting the casket of Tutankhamun.
In early 1923 Carter’s sponsor Lord Carnarvon was tiring of the demands made on him by many media outlets anxious for the next scrap of information on the tomb’s excavation, so he sold the exclusive rights to the story to The Times for £5,000. Although this was frowned upon by many it gave a clear showcase to Burton’s stunning photographs, many of which were made into glass lantern slides and projected by Carter during his frequent talks about excavating Tutankhamun’s tomb.
When working in the tombs Burton illuminated them with electric bulbs rather than flash and positioned reflectors and mirrors to create special lighting effects. He used a neighbouring tomb, known as KV55, as a makeshift darkroom and had to meet Carter’s rigorous demands for photographic quality. Carter wouldn’t move on to the next stage of the excavation until he had personally approved each image. Over a 10-year period Burton shot approximately 1,400 images, many of which remain iconic today. Indeed, given the conditions Burton was working in, and the comparatively primitive equipment he had, the quality of his images was astonishing.
UNESCO World Heritage sites
Exactly 75 years after the 1922 discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the Italian photographer Sandro Vannini made his first trip to Egypt to photograph UNESCO World Heritage sites for a long-term project. He reveals, ‘When I went to Egypt for the first time, in 1997, I realised that there was a lot to do and a lot that wasn’t done before; both in terms of a normal storytelling and in the archaeological field.’
Vannini admits he didn’t really study the work of Burton, and other photographers who had worked in the Valley of the Kings, too much before shooting in Egypt. He recalls, ‘I started to be interested in all the photography about ancient Egypt a few years later. In 2003 and 2004 I started to explore old archives of photography in Egypt. I don’t want to seem arrogant but because my photography was connected a lot with the technology, I worked with the technology like a pioneer. My style of photography isn’t a style that I can find in other photographers in the field of archaeology. I was doing what a lot of photographers are doing today 15 or 20 years ago, so I never had a photographer as somebody to refer to.’
Cameras and equipment
The results of Vannini’s exhaustive work feature in the recently published Taschen book, King Tut. The Journey through the Underworld, which includes around 10 images shot on film, with the rest being digital. He explains, ‘ This digital photography was done with only two cameras. At the beginning I worked with a Silvestri camera with Rodenstock lenses and the multishot Imacon digital back – this equipment was used for the first part of my work in Egypt from 2004.’
Vannini adds, ‘In 2012 I switched to the Hasselblad HD4, the multi-shot one with the megapixels and I will now move to the new one that I saw recently – the 400megapixel [H6D- 400c MS camera]. The kind of work I’d been doing at the beginning with the Imacon [back] was more complicated than today with the Hasselblad, but at that time it wasn’t possible to have such a simple digital camera with that quality. The Imacon digital back was the highest-performance digital back on the market when I bought it.’
Like Harry Burton many decades earlier, Sandro Vannini faced some big challenges. He explains, ‘Before we started to shoot in the Valley of the Kings all of the photographers before me had used normal yellow lights or flashes. None of them had ever used HMI lights but we brought a huge number of torches there, with a generator outside. In the Valley of the Kings the electricity supply isn’t stable but our electric system required a lot of power and had to be very stable. So we were obliged to have a very big power generator outside to provide all of the electricity for lighting, computers, cameras, everything.’
He adds, ‘I remember when we lit the big tomb of Ramesses VI – KV9 in the Valley of the Kings – we brought all this light and it was like the set of a movie. Nobody had done this before. All of the archaeologists and curators who were around went inside this and saw, for the first time in history, the tomb lit by white light with no colour casts. The colours were as they are in reality for the first time. Even those who painted the tomb thousands of years ago were working with oil lamps, a very yellow light, so nobody had seen the real colours as they are before.’
The other challenges are the heat and the dust. The larger, deeper tombs have relatively stable temperatures but the small tombs that are closer to the surface can have temperatures of more than 50°C in the summer, thus causing huge potential problems for digital equipment.
Vannini reveals, ‘ The tombs are never clean. There is always a very soft, light dust – like a powder – and when you move this dust goes everywhere; inside the cameras and
inside the ventilation of the computers. You can’t bring in air conditioning to bring down the temperature, so the only way was to bring ice inside aluminium boxes. These boxes were the table on which we were using the computer and where the camera would wait to be used again.’
Shooting the mask
As well as the problems of the locale, various technical hurdles had to be overcome by Vannini to shoot the artifacts of Tutankhamun, most notably when shooting the mask of the boy pharaoh. ‘ The mask is gold inlayed with a lot of different stones; these can go from a red amethyst to dark blue stones. The difference in the exposure of this picture from the point at which the light touches the gold, and there is a flare, and the lowest point in exposure – the very dark blue stone – is more than 10 stops. No one camera is in the condition to record a 10-stop range without using [editing] software.’
He continues, ‘If you want to record a colour exactly as it is you have to bring the exact light that that stone or metal needs to have. I only had to make 10 pictures working on the 10-stop difference between the gold and the dark stone; going down [in exposure] in 10 pictures to arrive at the [correct exposure for] stone. The same pictures were done with the multi-shot assistant, so that’s 16 shots for each picture. So, to do the mask, I shot 160 times but it’s the most correct image of the mask ever done. This is the technologically creative part of my work. To make the mask image we spent three weeks in post-production.’
About the book
The idea behind Vannini’s new book is that, rather than being a straight photographic record of the treasures of Tutankhamun, it tells the story of how the pharoahs journeyed into the underworld.
Vannini reveals, ‘We wanted to make a book that would tell the story of this voyage in the underworld. It’s the best way to understand what you go to see in Egypt because without understanding this it’s difficult to understand more than what’s on the surface... like how big the pyramids are or how nice the statue of the Sphinx is. To approach Egyptian civilisation it’s important to learn this basic part of their religion, otherwise it’s just a superficial approach.’
Whether it be the photographs of Harry Burton, Sandro Vannini or Albert Watson, what’s crystal clear is that it’s the sheer power of the imagery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and treasures that has captured the imaginations of generations all over the world.
Below: Canopic jars in alabaster from the New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, reign of Tutankhamun. The stoppers of the jars of Tutankhamun show the king wearing the nemes headdress and with the vulture and uraeus serpent on his forehead
Above left: Sandro Vannini shooting a King Tutankhamun artifact in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt, 2017 Above right: His lighting set-up for shooting in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt, 2005
Sandro Vannini is an Italian photographer and filmmaker who began his career in 1982. Since 1997 he has been best known for his work photographing ancient Egyptian culture. He is director of the company Laboratoriorosso, which specialises in publishing, exhibition logistics and documentary making, among other projects. To find out more go to www.sandrovannini. com
Left: A scene from the burial chamber of Tutankhamun painted on limestone. The middle part shows Tutankhamun standing with the goddess Nut Below left: These small coffins, or coffinettes, were found inside the alabaster canopic jars of Tutankhamun Below: Detail of a diadem with uraeus and vulture. Howard Carter found this over the wig that had been put over the shaven head of Tutankhamun
with photography by Sandro Vannini. ISBN: 978-3-8365-7146-3 RRP £50. www. taschen.com King Tut. The Journey through the Underworld,