As I write this, we are just at the beginning of a new photography season on BBC4 which I am finding fascinating. It is wonderful to see photography, and the history of photography, being given a prominent place in the schedules, and therefore in the public consciousness.
We started with Eamonn McCabe, the Guardian’s sometime picture editor, with a three-part series on the history of British photography. The first episode was a lightning tour through the 19th century concentrating very specifically on British photography. We were thus introduced to Fox Talbot, Frederick Scott Archer, Hill and Adamson, and Julia Margaret Cameron. It was remarkable how little it was possible to say about the daguerreotype and still make sense of the early history of photography! To most of our readers there was probably little here that you didn't already know, but if you want to introduce your friends and family to the fascination of early photography then it looks as if this series will be a good way to begin.
The second program I watched was called "The Man Who Shot Tutankhamun", and told the story of Harry Burton, who was Howard Carter’s photographer in the Valley of the Kings. Not just in 1922 when he discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, but for another decade afterwards as well, whilst they were doing the detailed excavations. It was really worthwhile to concentrate on the quality of the photography, done under fairly difficult conditions and to a very high standard, technically and artistically. What made a real difference was the involvement of photographer Harry Cory Wright. Cory Wright is an experienced large format photographer who brought along his 1950s Gandolfi to replicate as closely as possible the experience that Burton would have had. The original photographs were taken on 10x8 glass plates, so that is what was used for the modern experiment. Interestingly, the professional archaeologists still working there are using 10 x 8 cameras themselves for some of their work, albeit using sheet film rather than glass plates. Why? – right now, you can still get better resolution that way than with any digital solution, though eventually even that will change, no doubt.
To do his trial, Cory Wright needed to coat his own glass plates using liquid emulsion and a brush. Although no fuss was made about this, serious brushmarks were visible in at least one of the resulting negatives!
The team also contrived to get access to an adjacent tomb in which Harry Burton had actually done his own negative processing. What was very clear was that Burton was achieving far higher standards of cleanliness in the dusty and dirty conditions than Cory Wright could. By this time in his career Burton had been photographing in the Egyptian desert for many years, and had undoubtedly refined his technique.
An occasional and irregular blog, mostly of photographic experimentation and photographic history.