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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Harry Burton (1879–1940): The Pharaoh’s Photographer

Established in 1906, the Metropolitan Museum’s Egyptian Expedition conducted excavations at several sites, including western Thebes (MC 39), opposite the modern city of Luxor. One of the richest archaeological sites in the world, the Theban necropolis contains hundreds of decorated tombs, and the expedition’s Graphic Section was created to record them, first in facsimile paintings and eventually in photographs.

In 1914, Harry Burton was hired as a member of the Graphic Section, initially to photograph tomb interiors and later to record the work of the Museum’s excavation team (M10C 49). Burton rapidly gained a reputation as the finest archaeological photographer of his time. Thus, when Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, he promptly asked the Metropolitan for the loan of Burton’s services (TAA 678; TAA 55). For the next eight years, Burton divided his time between Tutankhamun and the Egyptian Expedition.

Between 1914 and his death in 1940, Burton produced and printed more than 14,000 glass negatives; the majority of those negatives and prints are in the archives of the Department of Egyptian Art. To Egyptologists, Harry Burton’s photographs are among the great treasures of the department. For the art historian, he has left a complete photographic record of dozens of decorated tombs as they were preserved in the early twentieth century. For the archaeologist and the historian, he has left an invaluable record of the Museum’s excavations (7A 17; 6A 123). Since archaeology is a process of removal and destruction, Burton’s stage-by-stage documentation of work in progress allows us to re-create the context of objects that are now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, and in New York (6A 80; M16C 106, 107, 352–354). Burton’s photographs of the tomb of Tutankhamun, much better known than his work for the Museum, give the same thorough record of each new discovery within that tomb (TAA 242).

Far more than dry scientific records, Burton’s photographs also inspire a sense of wonder because of his ability to tell a story—to convey the atmosphere of a tomb unopened for more than three millennia (8A 291; M8C 205a), the poignancy of a floral offering left at the foot of a coffin (M6C 480), or the anticipation of an excavator confronted by a sealed door (TAA 622). Burton was a superb archaeological photographer with a knack for producing clear and informative photographs under the most difficult circumstances. In carrying out his documentary mission, he often set up his camera and lights with a sense of artistry as well as practicality and created pictures we find beautiful, exciting, or mysterious. The modern viewer may also find unintended associations in his work. Just as we might admire an ancient alabaster vase in part because its design seems “so modern,” some of Burton’s pictures remind us of photographs made in the seventy or eighty years that followed (TAA 1175). That connection is not altogether accidental. Many artists from the 1920s to the present have tried to apprehend the world by using their cameras to gather and classify an archive of faces, natural forms, or manmade constructions—to examine our own civilization as a future archaeologist might, borrowing from photographers like Burton the strategies of exhaustive documentation and deadpan presentation (M6C 62).

Early Life
Harry Burton was born in 1879 in Stamford, Lincolnshire, England, the son of a cabinetmaker. The fifth of eleven children, Burton went to live with Robert Cust, a local gentleman of independent means who saw to his education. Cust was a scholar of Italian Renaissance art and eventually moved to Florence, taking Burton along as his secretary. It was in Florence that Burton developed his skill with a camera, becoming known as a talented photographer of paintings; it was also there that he met Theodore M. Davis, a wealthy American who held the concession to excavate in the Valley of the Kings, the famous royal cemetery of Egypt’s New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 B.C.). Eventually Davis hired Burton as his photographer and later as the director of his excavations. When Davis gave up his concession in 1914, Burton was hired as photographer for the Metropolitan’s Egyptian Expedition, remaining in the post until his death in 1940.

A pharaoh of minor historical importance, Tutankhamun reigned fewer than ten years (ca. 1336–1327 B.C.) and probably died at the age of eighteen (TAA 368). Within a few decades, his makeshift tomb was twice robbed, then resealed and forgotten. Realizing that this one royal tomb remained unaccounted for, Howard Carter, with the backing of his patron Lord Carnarvon, searched the Valley of the Kings for Tutankhamun’s elusive resting place. As hope faded after five years of futile work, Carter discovered the tomb’s entrance stairway and, on November 26, 1922, first glimpsed the “wonderful things” within (TAA 18). Painstaking examination, documentation, and clearing of the tomb took eight years. Despite Tutankhamun’s relative insignificance and minor looting by robbers shortly after his burial, his tomb was essentially intact and remains the richest such discovery ever made. The unfolding of this discovery is preserved for us in Burton’s masterful photographs (TAA 364).

Motion Pictures and the Egyptian Expedition
Believing that the latest technology could be useful in presenting the Museum’s excavations to the public, Trustee Edward S. Harkness bought a hand-cranked movie camera for the Egyptian Expedition in 1921. It arrived in Luxor in early 1922. Although Burton had hoped for instruction from a professional motion-picture photographer, none was available; instead, he taught himself to operate the camera—tentatively at first, but with growing confidence as time passed.

A second camera was purchased the following year, and Burton traveled to Hollywood in 1924 to see how the major film studios dealt with problems of lighting; in fact, conditions in Egypt were so different from those in Hollywood that studio methods were hardly applicable. On Burton’s recommendation, the Museum did purchase two arc lamps, which proved useful for shooting tomb interiors when a reliable source of electricity could be found, but for the most part he filmed outside in bright desert sunlight.

In addition to footage of archaeological subjects, Albert M. Lythgoe, head of the Department of Egyptian Art, thought that scenes of contemporary life in Egypt would be valuable for lectures and for the department’s photographic archive, and he too learned to operate the movie cameras. The Museum preserves more than thirteen hours of rare, remarkable film footage shot by Burton and Lythgoe between 1922 and 1925.