Wednesday, June 14, 2006

yes -- wonderful things.

harry burton's photographs
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo.
I was pretty cranky on the drive in to Hyde Park tonight to see a viewing of Harry Burton’s excavation photos of King Tut’s tomb at the Oriental Institute – the clusterf* that was the tollway probably had something to do with it. All that stop and go traffic gave me plenty of time to wonder WHY TUT?

There are so many freakin’ cool excavations in the history of modern man – so many freakin’ cool exhibits going on (the Chicago Art Institute’s Hero Hawk and Open Hand comes first to mind – that one should have gone on world tour it was so brilliant.) – so why do people get so loopy when it comes to the boy king Tut? I'm not saying the artifacts aren't worth the price of admission -- but have you seen the Peruvian gold at the Met in NYC? Amazing stuff -- but no one's ever written send-up song about Peruvian gold...

The Field Museum exhibit just opened up and everyone and their brother is running Tut related events. (Cut to me, stuck in traffic, on my way to another Tut related event.)

The good news is: This particular Tut event held some of the answers I was looking for.

Curator Emily Teeter spoke before the viewing and pointed out that the madness that greeted Tut in the 1920s shortly after Carter discovered the tomb had a lot to do with the images that Harry Burton produced.

Trained to shoot fine art in Europe, Burton came to the job with a great sense of how to light and stage a scene for maximum clarity and storytelling impact, and the shots he took were unlike the photographic style being used to chronicle archaeology at that time -- or to this day, for that matter. Sure, he staged a few shots of Carter looking dreamy in the tomb -– which have nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with PR – but those aren’t the shots that are most interesting. The ones that took my breath away were ones like these:

The undisturbed seal on one of the doorways to the inner chamber »

The delicate dried wreath of flowers that encircled Tut’s headdress »

Even more stunning was the studio shot of the golden sandals that the boy wore to his grave, anchored by an array of 20 sheathes of gold that he worn on each one of his toes and each one of his finger tips. (That one you’ll have to go to the show to see, because it’s not available online.) Also photographed: The young king's left hand, wearing those sheaths. (ditto.)

The moral of this story: Photography tells stories. Good photography tells really big stories, to a lot of people, and has the power to shape history.

Not a bad thing to be reminded of.

But I’m still cranky that traffic was so bad I missed the cocktail hour.

p.s. The catalog of the show is impressive and extends beyond the 50 images selected for the exhibit –- but a quick search doesn’t turn it up in any of the expected places. I’ll post an update if I’m able to track it down. It was produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in partnership with the Oriental Institute, but it doesn’t appear on either site or at any of the online book-tailers.

Update: Found it.

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