2. A Brief Contextualisation of Analog Photography in Archaeology

Archaeology and photography, both considered projects and products of modernity, have extensively exchanged metaphorical weight throughout their complementary histories (Bohrer 2011; Shanks and Svabo 2013; Thomas 2004). As early as 1839, Dominique François Jean Arago enthusiastically embraced photography as a means to accurately 'copy the millions of hieroglyphics which cover even the exterior of the great monuments of Thebes, Memphis, Karnak' in a way that would 'excel the works of the most accomplished painters, in fidelity of detail and true reproduction of the local atmosphere' (Banta et al.1986, 73). Fox Talbot, the inventor of the 'Calotype' process in 1841, was an antiquarian and took photographs of manuscripts, engravings, and busts (Dorrell 1989, see discussions of Talbot's Pencil of Nature by Hamilakis and Ifantidis 2015; Shanks and Svabo 2013).

Monumental architecture and artefacts aside, photographs of excavations were also produced at this time, but were often used as the basis of lithographs or engravings that were used instead of the original photographs to illustrate books (Dorrell 1989). Moving beyond using these photographs as the basis for drawings, Salzmann's photography of Jerusalem was used by archaeologist Felicien de Saulcy to ascribe greater age to artefacts previously associated with biblical times. Salzmann contrasts his work to the earlier standard of drawing by stating 'Photographs are more than tales, they are facts endowed with a convincing brute force', commenting on photography's 'putative objectivity' and 'rhetorical force' to 'not just passively document, but actively argues for an interpretive position' (Bohrer 2005, 181-82).

Figure 1
Figure 1: Flinders Petrie behind a camera in Abydos, 1899. Courtesy © Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London

By 1906, British archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie (Figure 1) published a chapter on photography in Methods and Aims of Archaeology, and North American archaeological photography was not far behind. The move from cataloguing architectural remains such as Mesa Verde and the monumental buildings of Mexico to the integration of photography into field methodology also marks the move to the culture history era of Americanist archaeology, which characterises the first 50 years of 20th century scholarship. During this time there was a shift in excavation imagery that culminated in the regimented World War II-era excavation photography of British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler. With the onset of large-scale excavations, the objective to make 'quantifiable documents' that could be used comparatively became important in archaeology (Guha 2002, 97). In the 1910s, the measuring scale that is now a defining feature of archaeological photographs appeared and became ubiquitous (Guha 2002, 98; see also Chadha 2002). Wheeler imposed strict regulations for site photography, using the camera as a scientific recording device and created new genres of archaeological photography in making fieldwork explicitly visible. Wheeler also ushered in a more strictly 'scientific' and 'objective' regime, 'abandoning all aesthetic genres of representation' and removing the names of the photographers from the individual photographs (Guha 2002, 99).

This regimented use of photography would characterise a larger move within British and Americanist archaeology toward scientific positivism after World War II. During this time, a number of manuals dictating a prescribed methodology emerged, reflecting the rapidly changing technology in photography. An emphasis on the camera as part of the archaeological toolkit appears throughout this literature, and the archaeologist-photographer is considered a poor second to a more professional photographer. An archaeologist makes 'use of the camera simply as a recording instrument, referring to the photograph or transparency later as a means of refreshing memory or to confirm previous findings' (Matthews 1968, 101). Another concern is site cleanliness, where the photographer must communicate to the archaeologist a need for the workers to remove 'unsightly clutter' which can detract from the 'intended subject' (Simmons 1969, 48). Yet there are also several instances where archaeologists question the veracity of photography as a recording method. Indeed, when matters of inaccuracy in photographs are raised, the camera is cast as an 'awful liar' and the archaeologist must struggle to produce an objective of truth 'as he sees it and not as the camera may see it' and that a failure in this regard might lead us to 'misinterpret its product with our subjective eyes or minds' (Simmons 1969, 4; see also Bohrer 2011).

By the mid-1970s, the complexity of archaeological photography had increased considerably. In the comprehensive and highly technical book edited by Harp (1975), there are sections on aerial photography, underwater photography, and, notably, public audiencing of technical photographs. The suggestion is that photographs can be used to communicate messages, and that 'photographs, like messages in any other medium, are symbolic simplifications' (Dechert 1975, 348), but this question is still framed in terms of miscommunication between the photographer and the camera and the biases introduced by the camera. A similar book was published in the United Kingdom, with an emphasis on technical detail, intending to inform the 'production of dispassionate factual records rather than pleasing illustrations of them' and that 'the execution of the photographs is an important element in ensuring that they present the facts they are to illustrate as strikingly and vividly, as well as accurately as possible' (Conlon 1973, xiii). The positivism displayed in these books reflects the move toward scientific methodology characteristic of the New Archaeology, or processual archaeology, championed in North America by Lewis Binford and in the United Kingdom by David Clarke.

Further developments in infrared and ultra-violet photography enhanced visibility of sites and as technology in photography became available and more inexpensive, archaeology manuals were updated to reflect this change, but hints of self-awareness remained scarce. In Dorrell's (1989) Photography in Archaeology and Conservation, a brief section regarding photographing people hints at the complexities inherent in staging site photography. The author encourages the photographer to emulate National Geographic Magazine when possible, that the work area should look clean and efficient, and to exercise tact when photographing local people. This advice is perhaps ill-conceived, as the photography in National Geographic Magazine has come under considerable scrutiny in post-colonial theory and visual anthropology (in particular, Gero and Root 1990; Lutz and Collins 1993) and possibly suspect in photographic veracity (Morgan in press).

By the 1980s, archaeological photography had become, for the most part, standardised. The photo scale was now accompanied by an arrow to indicate north and a board with the photograph's locale prominently displayed. People, when present, were working diligently and anonymously. Artefacts were photographed or scanned in isolation, with the background burned out in post-processing (Houk and Moses 1998). This impression of the artefact 'floating in space', far removed from the dirt of the excavation, was seen as more scientific, with fewer distractions. This mechanisation and standardisation of photography in archaeology was also due to the growing professionalisation of archaeology. In the United States and the United Kingdom, excavations were increasingly performed by developer-funded specialists with deadlines and budgets to meet. This remains the case today, with archaeologists in these countries often excavating in the shadow of developers' bulldozers.

In the last two decades, critiques from post-processual, feminist and indigenous archaeologists have destabilised scientific positivism in archaeology. The use of visual media for recording, interpretation and dissemination in archaeology has come under similar scrutiny, including illustrations (Moser 2012; 2014; Perry and Johnson 2014; Perry 2009; Wright and Morgan in press), model-making (Moser 1999; Perry 2013), film (Taylor 2007; Stern 2007; Piccini 1996; 2007) and Virtual Reconstruction (Morgan 2009; Earl 2008; Gillings 2005; Watterson 2015) among many other forms of representation (Moser 2009; Moser and Gamble 1997; Morgan 2012; Van Dyke 2006). Amidst these media, I find photography to be a particularly productive means to explore visual representation in archaeology. Shanks (1997) introduced a critique of archaeological photography, identifying genres and suggested potential venues for future research. He proposed using montage and disunity with text to throw into question the use of photography and for ethnographies of the profession. Since the 1990s, these ideas have been developed and explored in many publications. Bateman (2005) questions the assumed objectivity of photography during an archaeological project in the United Kingdom and juxtaposes professional and private categories of photography in archaeology. Bateman also discusses archaeological portraiture as social photography, a theme further considered by Stephen and Morgan (2014) of diverse heritage actors at the World Archaeological Congress, by Webb (Swain 1997; Witmore 2007) of archaeological excavators in the United Kingdom, and Hamilakis et al. (2009) of local workers in Greece.

Representation in archaeological photography has been explored more broadly than portraiture; analyses of Wheeler's representations of sites and workers in India reveal the 'disciplinarian ideologies of the colonial project' (Chadha 2002; see also Guha 2002). Shepherd extends this critique to South Africa, where 'archaeology and photography coincide exactly' and discusses arresting photographs of unidentified local workers from John Goodwin's archive within the framework of archaeological knowledge production (2003, 335). Bohrer discusses the representation of differential power on archaeological sites, with the individuation of site directors from indigenous workers who are 'most commonly gathered together in a single group' (2011, 73). Shanks and Svabo (2013) have more recently identified an ontological association between archaeology and photography, conflating the two into 'archaeography'. Hamilakis and Ifantidis also identify photography and archaeology's shared ontological and epistemic principles, proposing an alternative mode of production, which they characterise as 'counter-modern' (2015, 134).


Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

University of York legal statements