Friday, May 4, 2018

Documenting Egypt through photographs - Al Ahram Weekly

Documenting Egypt through photographs

The Ministry of Antiquities is documenting its extensive photographic archives for the first time

Documenting Egypt through photographs
Documenting Egypt through photographs
Al-Ahram Weekly

The archives of the Egyptian Museum and of the Ministry of Culture's Documentation Centre each hold a collection of about 25,000 glass photographic negatives spanning the years from the 1860s to the 1950s. 

They include works by famous photographers like Antonio Beato (active 1860-1906) and Gabriel Lekegian (active 1870-1890), as well as works by many unnamed photographers who documented excavations, ancient monuments, artefacts, people and places at the time.

In an attempt to preserve and conserve these glass negatives for the future, the Ministry of Antiquities in collaboration with the British Museum in London has carried out a year-long documentation project entitled "Glass Negative Digitisation and Preservation". The project started in March 2017 and ran until April 2018 and was supported by Arcadia, a charitable fund.

Hisham Al-Leithi, director of the ministry's Documentation Centre, described the project as "very important" because it preserved one of the ministry's rare archives.

He said that the project had allowed the cleaning, rehousing, cataloguing, digitisation and preliminary conservation of over 15,000 glass plate negatives to date. These will be made available online for researchers and the public to explore.

"All of this work has been undertaken by ministry staff, trained in best practices and provided with the necessary equipment, and this will ensure that further collections can be preserved in similar ways," Al-Leithi said.

An exhibition to highlight the work was inaugurated at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, putting on show some of the archive collection.

Al-Leithi told Al-Ahram Weekly that with the invention of photography in Paris in 1839, its promoters described how it would be possible to copy the hieroglyphs on temples and tombs in Egypt. A few months later, in November 1839, the Frenchmen Horace Vernet and Frederic Goupil-Fesquet captured the first known photograph taken in Egypt, of the Ras Al-Tin Palace in Alexandria. 

Many other photographers followed in their footsteps, travelling up and down the country to photograph monuments, landscapes and the people that inhabited them. Some of them stayed and opened photography studios in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and Luxor, as photographic souvenir albums became popular amongst the growing number of tourists. 

The Egyptian Antiquities Service was founded in 1858, and by the 1880s archaeologists were carrying out excavations for the service all over the country. For many of them, photography became fundamental in documenting their work and the artefacts they uncovered. 

Some cooperated with well-established photographers such as Hypolite Délie and Emile Béchard, who were hired by director of the Egyptian Museum Auguste Mariette to produce the Album du Musée Boulaq in 1872, the first catalogue of this museum's collections. 

Other archaeologists, like Flinders Petrie and George Reisner, practised photography themselves and developed techniques adapted to the abundance of sand and sun facing excavations in Egypt.

"The result is thousands of images of Egypt as it was in the period from the 1840s onwards," Al-Leithi said, adding that many of them are preserved on glass negatives housed in the Egyptian Museum and in the archives of the Ministry of Antiquities. 

The ministry has a unique documentary archive containing over 60,000 glass negatives of different sizes in its Documentation Centre and at the Egyptian Museum, and it has more than 100,000 prints. 

To highlight this unique archive, the exhibition, including 21 glass negatives and six graphic panels telling the history of photography, is on display at the Egyptian Museum for the next two months. 



RAWING WITH LIGHT: Glass negatives were the standard method of capturing photographs from the 1850s until about 1940, and two different processes produced the negatives on display: the wet plate and the dry plate. 

The first required the photographer to cut a glass plate to the size needed and cover it with a light-sensitive liquid mixture. This had to remain wet while it was exposed in the camera and had to be developed immediately after exposure. This meant that photographers always had to bring a darkroom with them wherever they went, something that was very difficult on archaeological sites. 

The invention of the dry plate process in 1871 made photography easier as plates could now be bought already cut to standard sizes and, most importantly, prepared with a dry light-sensitive surface. The plate could now, as it was already dry, be exposed at any time, and development could wait until the photographer returned from the field. 

Positive prints of the developed negatives were made by placing a paper prepared with light-sensitive chemicals on the negative and exposing it to the sun. 

Glass plate negatives fell out of use with the development of film photography in the 1940s, which was considerably cheaper and more portable. Digital photography has today almost entirely replaced film photography in museum and archaeological work.

Glass negatives are extremely fragile and require careful handling to preserve them for future generations. They need to be kept in special enclosures and stored in a stable environment. 

Broken and damaged glass negatives can be repaired and preserved in several ways, depending on their condition and the aim of the treatment. One way is to place the negative in a support to hold the broken pieces and then cover it with cardboard, to ensure it can be both stored safely and easily accessed.

Photographic documentation, or digitisation, allows the glass negatives to be researched and viewed without handling the delicate originals. With broken or damaged negatives, the image can also be repaired or rejoined digitally.  

The earliest photographs in the Egyptian Museum's collections displayed in the exhibition date to the 1870s and were taken in their first home of the Boulaq Museum. A photographic studio was later set up in the current museum and remains in use today. 

In the nearly 150 years since then, photographers have been employed to document both artefacts that are displayed in the museum and new artefacts as they arrive. These images are used in catalogues, popular publications and merchandise.

Museum photographers have also documented other aspects of the museum's history: the changing views of the building and the gardens, VIP visits, staff and their activities, and changing displays. In doing so, they have also unintentionally recorded changes in signage and decorative schemes within the historic building that was opened in 1902. 

The glass negatives thus capture memories of the museum: the antiquities, exhibitions, historical and cultural events, and the people who participated in making this history.

Photographers working in Egypt at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries did not only photograph ancient monuments. They also captured scenes of everyday life across bustling cities and quiet rural areas. Carrying with them large cameras, with the sun as their only light source, each photograph seems to have been taken with the aim to tell a story. 

Thanks to these photographs, Egypt's history becomes about more than monuments as they provide a window to the past through which we can observe streets, clothes, means of transportation, professions, shops, trades, traditions and customs, allowing us to compare these with the scenes of life today.

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