Photographer to the Pharaohs – Harry Burton

Photographer to the Pharaohs – Harry Burton

Harry Burton (1879 – 1940) began his brilliant career as a photographer in 1914 when he was hired by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art to photograph newly discovered Egyptian tombs around Thebes, near the modern city of Luxor. Burton excelled in this difficult photographic environment, often performed in cramped spaces and challenging lighting conditions and quickly forged a reputation as a superb archaeological photographer.

When Howard Carter discovered the incomparable tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, he requested that a photographic record of the discovery be assembled, and Harry Burton was commissioned. This resulted in a meticulous visual record of the event as it unfolded across the next eight years. Burton was an expert in black and white photography and from 1914 until his death in 1940 he produced more than 14,000 superb glass plate negatives, a collection that is now recognised as one of the treasures of Egyptology – the study of Ancient Egypt.

Burton also branched out into the world of movie cameras in 1922, when he was provided with a hand cranked device to record excavations taking place around Luxor. He had been hoping for tuition regarding the use of the camera, but as none was forthcoming he proceeded to teach himself, and became a highly competent operator.

In 2015 many of Burton’s original black and white photographs were “colourised”, using a digital computer process that assigns colours to shades of grey. This process was done in parallel with extensive research that indicated accurate colour references for objects seen in the photographs. The result was a stunning series of images that went as close to reality as possible and showed Burton’s enthralling images in a new perspective.

Burton’s photographs continue to fascinate and amaze modern generations, and thanks to his mastery of the still camera a superb record of ancient Egypt has been left for all to admire.


Image: A Harry Burton photograph showing Howard Carter at work in Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.