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“Historical Egypt in Photographs” Marcel Maessen (EEG Meeting Talk)

For the May meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group Marcel Maessen, one of the founders of the t3.wy Foundation, came to talk to us about the history of photography as it relates to Egypt & Egyptology. The t3.wy Foundation is an organisation that is researching the history of Egyptology. They are particularly keen to open up the various Egyptological archives and make the contents available to a wider audience of both academic researchers and other interested people. These archives include things like original documents from excavations, correspondence between Egyptologists, and photographs. Maessen said they meet with quite a lot of resistance to this idea from both Egypt and from academia in general – in part because the members of the t3.wy Foundation are mostly not professional Egyptologists so are seen as “outsiders”. Maessen’s talk fell into two parts (with a convenient break for coffee and cake!). Firstly he talked to us about the history of photography in general (briefly) and in Egypt in particular, and why old photographs are more than mere curiosities. Then after the break he showed us a lot of examples of old photos of Egypt.

Photography was developed during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries CE. By the late 1700s the idea existed, and in 1802 the word “photography” was first used in relation to this idea. In the 1830s Daguerre invented a method of exposing a treated glass plate to light in order to record an image – the daguerreotype was the first type of photographic process. It was publicly announced in 1839, and almost immediately photographers began to record the ancient Egyptian monuments. As photographic techniques evolved over time, they have always been used in Egypt right down to the modern day where both tourists & researchers photograph whatever ancient Egyptian sites they visit.

So why are old photographs so important? Obviously if they’re your own personal photos, or your family’s photos, then they are important for the memories they carry. But old photographs are also important for the Egyptological researcher, and for the researcher of Egyptological history. If you compare present day photographs with older ones you can see what’s changed: what has been restored? what has been demolished? when did damage occur? and so on. One example he talked about was using photographs to investigate when damage to a temple relief occured – a line drawing from the mid-19th Century of a particular relief showing Ramesses II’s sons depicts them all with intact faces. But if you look at the relief today all the faces have been chiselled off. So were they damaged after the original drawing was made? Maessen has found a photograph from as close to contemporary with the line drawing as possible which shows the same damaged faces that we see on the relief today: clearly the artist used his imagination to fill in the missing details.

Another example was of a photo of a dig house, taken in 1914. The t3.wy Foundation started off researching dig houses, and this is why Maessen originally wanted this particular image in a high resolution. The photo was taken from a distance, so Maessen looked to see what else he could find in the landscape around the dig house. He showed us that the photo also shows another half a dozen or so interesting buildings (including one place that Howard Carter lived). As well as this there was an interesting wall – built to stop tombs from flooding if there were flash floods – and the information in this photo showing exactly where this wall was & what state it was in in 1914 helps to interpret the conditions the tombs were in when excavated.

Between 1839 and around 1910 there were about 150 photographers who worked in Egypt. Most of their photos still exist, but they are often in inaccessible archives. Maessen listed several names, the vast majority of which I didn’t recognise – the list did include Francis Frith, and Harry Burton (of course). Burton’s work is one of the collections that hasn’t survived in bulk, due to a house fire that destroyed most of it. The early photographers in Egypt weren’t interested in ancient Egypt per se, they were interested in selling photographs to people (mostly tourists, or would-be tourists). This is why so many photographs survive from this time, although often the glass negatives were destroyed when the photo was no longer commercially relevant. The biggest archives of old photos of Egypt are still in Egypt, but they’re neither catalogued nor accessible to anybody and Maessen was pretty scathing about the conditions that the negatives & prints are stored in. For instance in the archive in the Cairo Museum no-one opens any of the boxes, because if anything is found to be missing or broken then the opener of the box will be held responsible and no-one wants to be that person.

What did the early photographers in Egypt photograph? There are several broad categories of photographic subjects. Some photos were to document the monuments and the landscape of the country, and some photographed similar subjects but with a more romantic intent to capture picturesque scenes. Photographers also illustrated the “bizarre” “oriental” people, via staged photographs of daily life in Egypt. There was also photography of excavations. Nowadays each excavation has its own photographer, and is thoroughly documented, but in the past this was not the case. The Egypt Exploration Society was the first to take along their own photographers to digs, so they have a large archive of this sort of photograph. Before that excavation photography was a matter of chance, almost – was there a photographer available in the area who could be hired for the purpose? In a similar vein is photography of the results of excavations – the Cairo Museum has photographs in its archives of every object that has come into the museum.

Then as now photography was also an essential part of tourism. Of course in the early days of photography tourists didn’t have their own cameras, so they bought photographs from the tour photographer or from other photographers based in Egypt. To continue his theme from earlier of things you can discover from old photographs that the photographer didn’t realise they were telling you Maessen pointed out that most of the early tourist photos are of the Sphinx & the Pyramids. So the early tourists seem to’ve stayed near Cairo and not many ventured further south into Middle Egypt or Upper Egypt. As well as photographs of people at tourist sites all the early photographers in Egypt also took studio photos of the tourists. And this was so popular that studio photographers from other parts of the world opened branches in Cairo to get a share of the market. He showed us several examples of these, most of which were the sort of formal photo that one expects from the era. But there were also some more fun & quirky ones – for instance with the subject’s head superimposed on the top of a coffin!

Maessen finished up the first half of his talk by discussing saving these (and subsequent) photographs for the future. This is one of the goals of the t3.wy Foundation, but Maessen admits that the first question is are we going to be able to save them? He’d like to think so – but it’s such a large project that it’s difficult to know where to begin. One angle of attack that he’s pursuing is to bring together a company who still have the skills to develop the old glass negatives in the traditional way with the Egyptian government to begin working on the archives in Egypt. But this hasn’t been proceeding particularly smoothly, sadly. However there are places where the archive owners are starting to do a good job with cataloguing, preserving and even sharing their archives on the internet – he name checked the EES here, amongst several other institutions. He also talked about the photos that modern visitors to Egypt take – one day those will be the “old photos”, and might be just as interesting and important to future researchers as the 19th Century ones are to us. And he discussed how we all delete so much, or trust in a single copy uploaded to “the cloud” somewhere, and so all this potentially valuable information is just as fragile as the old glass negatives & paper prints.

After our coffee break the second half of Maessen’s talk was devoted to showing us lots of these old photographs. I’m not going to write this half up in depth because it’s pretty impossible without the visual aids! He has somewhere around 7000 unique photos and so he had to pick a selection of them to show us. Many scenes were photographed by every photographer who worked in Egypt, in the same way that every modern tourist who visits the Giza Pyramids goes to the panorama viewpoint and takes a photo of the three pyramids. So Maessen said he tried to pick either rarely seen photos from well known photographers, or photos from less well known photographers. The photos were fascinating, he pointed out things like being able to track the clearing & refilling of the area of sand around the Sphinx. Or how many people’s houses have been removed from inside monuments. And of course the amount of sand that had to be cleared in excavating many of the monuments. He grouped the photos by photographer, and I think also chronological order. The set that most caught my eye were those of the Von Hallwyl family, who were rich tourists who visited Egypt in 1901. The photos felt very much like one’s own holiday snaps … only in 1901 styles, and that somehow made them a great showcase for what’s changed over the years.

This was a really interesting talk – I’m not sure how well that comes across in this writeup, because given the subject matter so much of it was visual which is hard to convey in text. Maessen is clearly very passionate about his dream of preserving and sharing the thousands of photographs of Egypt that are archived around the world.