“Wonderful Things: The Harry Burton Photographs and the Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun”—Emory’s Carlos Museum compiles a selection of photos by Harry Burton, the official photographer of Howard Carter‘s famous 1922 excavation.
I like to think of the show as a kind of illustrated storybook, narrated by the silent “voice” of Harry Burton’s camera, in so many hints and fragments:
[Click above for examples; cycle through by clicking to the left and right. Exhibition photos by Ben Grad.]
The images, sampled from Burton’s original glass plate negatives, are reproduced in a warm sepia tone. The exhibition design compliments rather than overwhelms; color schemes flirt between shades of earth, pink, and gray. The layout rarely repeats itself, breaking the monotony with recessed viewing spaces, wall texts, and cases of physical objects between photographs.
As a photographer, Harry Burton had more than a decade of experience in Egypt before arriving at the excavation. But his training was initially in fine art, not archeology.
Burton’s reputation began in Florence, where he shot images of artwork, the type used by galleries or in museum publications; his mentor, Robert H. H. Cust, was an expert on the Italian Renaissance. Although Burton was of working-class roots (his father was a cabinetmaker), he emerged as a professional in this environment: a world of European culture, connoisseurship, and high-power collectors.
In 1922, Harry Burton was working for the Egyptian Exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum, New York. When Carter made his discovery that November, the MET graciously “loaned” Burton’s services to Carter. The men knew each other; they were both English, had similar backgrounds, and shared a common love for Egypt.
The Burton photos, while beautiful, are also valuable for their subtle narrative gestures. In each photo, we sense a story, or perhaps multiple stories, taking place. In these narratives, Howard Carter takes on different aspects of himself, suggesting for the viewer multiple “characters” represented by the same man.
First, there is the Carter the Adventurer, a kind of mythological figure. This was the Carter portrayed in the headlines. Years later, this pulp adventurer was one inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones.
As we gaze across the sands of Egypt, follow Carter into the mysterious tomb of Tutankhamun, and marvel at the unbroken seal of the inner burial chamber, these images convey a sense of drama and mystery: no one has been inside for 3,000 years.
I feel we are witnessing episodes from a pulp novel in the vein of Jules Verne. Consider this passage from Journey to the Center of the Earth, a book Carter and Burton may have read when they were young:
Now began our real journey. Hitherto our toil had overcome all difficulties, now difficulties would spring up at every step. I had not yet ventured to look down the bottomless pit into which I was about to take a plunge. The supreme hour had come.
Although Verne’s heroes were usually scientists, they were always men of action. Like a knight in a tale of medieval romance, they pursued a righteous quest. For these adventurers, the search for knowledge became a modern Holy Grail.
Despite his status as Britain’s most famous archaeologist, Howard Carter was never knighted. Though his legacy lives on, you have to wonder at the irony.
The second Carter is a public figure, defined by his occupation and its status within society: Carter the Archaeologist is a relationship to other people.
In a wall-mounted video, Carter is portrayed as a leader. We see the archaeologist amidst his daily work, while dozens of tourists and workmen shuffle about the tomb entrance. Carter pauses, faces the camera, and lifts his hat in a proud salute. This odd desert camp is Carter’s place of employment; these people are his staff.
Of course, the archaeologist also doubles as a diplomat. Carter becomes an authority who, by virtue of his knowledge, must welcome dignitaries from around the globe. In the group photo above, gentlemen clutch their walking sticks, while a lady sports a fur coat. The feeling is rigid and ceremonial—why is everyone so dressed up?
But Carter is most at home inside the tomb. Here, archaeology is a specialized profession, not unlike the practice of medicine. Carter holds his brush with the careful precision of a surgeon. For him, the burial chamber is a kind of laboratory.
Whenever I look at this photo:
I’m suddenly reminded of The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins. As a fine art photographer, Burton would have been familiar with certain pictorial techniques. As in the symbolism of Eakin’s medical paintings, the composition above signifies Carter as a person of privileged knowledge. Notice the concentration on his face; the placement of his head separates him from the group, giving him a visual priority over the horizontal line of observers just above his shoulder.
But for me, the most surprising aspect of the Carlos exhibition is the introduction of a third narrative: Howard Carter as the Artist.
Like Burton’s father, Carter’s father was also a creative individual, an illustrator for the Illustrated London News. In order to supplement his meager income, Carter created watercolors for tourists in Egypt, occasionally including them with letters to friends in England and the United States.
While these illustrations may not strike us as original or necessarily great, they give us a clue to the character of their creator. They demonstrate a kind of romantic admiration and, in their careful reproduction of Egyptian designs, suggest a state of contemplative devotion.
Carter would spend hours observing Egyptian architecture and copying murals. One of his favorite spots was Hatshepsut‘s temple in Deir el-Bahri. He described the experience as “a feast for the mind.” He wrote elsewhere:
The moment I first saw Egyptian art I was struck by its immense dignity and restraint…I was struck by the beauty of its line and above all its deep understanding in interpreting character. [emphasis mine]
By displaying several of Carter’s drawings and watercolors, “Wonderful Things” revives an aspect of the story we may have missed. His more schematic drawings demonstrate his careful draftsmanship; Carter shows a personality at once romantic and scientific. Tutankhamun’s tomb is yet another “feast for the mind.”
These meditative gestures remind me of copyists in medieval monasteries, where monks reproduced the Bible endlessly. In a way, Carter was also paying tribute to Thoth, the Egyptian god of scribes.
“Wonderful Things” offers a little more than your typical Egyptian show. Tutankhamun’s tomb becomes a kind of frame narrative; we experience the ancient world vicariously—as discovered by Howard Carter, as portrayed by Harry Burton through his photography.
*Images marked by asterisk: exhibition photos by Ben Grad.