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

Amateur Photographer - - 7days -

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.’

Chal­leng­ing con­di­tions

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. King Tut. The Jour­ney through the Un­der­world,

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