Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.20

Alessandro Pezzati, Adventures in Photography: Expeditions of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Museum, 2002.  Pp. xii, 31; 65 halftone plates.  ISBN 1-931707-41-3.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, Wesleyan University (
Word count: 836 words

The founding of the University of Pennsylvania's renowned Museum of Archaeology and Anthroplogy in 1887 took place some fifty years after the invention of photography. When the physicist François Arago discussed that invention before the French Chamber of Deputies in the spring of 1839, he declared that one of its most promising applications would be the recording of antiquities: "To copy the millions and millions of hieroglyphics with which even the outside of all the great monuments [of Egypt] are covered, scores of years, and whole legions of painters would be required. One individual, with a Daguerreotype would effect the labor in a very short period of time." Within a few years, Arago's vision had become reality, and by the 1850's photographers began to accompany archaeological expeditions.

In addition to its relative ease of production -- and I stress "relative," because in its early years photography was a complex and wearisome procedure -- the photograph offered what was thought to be an unprecedented combination of accuracy and objectivity. As a result, it became the ideal medium for travelers to use when they wanted to provide images of far-off lands and their inhabitants. It might be said that photography and the nascent disciplines of anthropology and archaeology grew up together.

By its own count, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has sponsored some 350 expeditions. They have spanned the globe, from Sierra Leone in west Africa, to Europe and the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, Central and South America, and even Alaska. The archive of photographs derived from these projects now comprises several hundred thousand images, from which Alessandro Pezzati, the Museum's archivist, has culled 64. For each of them Pezzati provides a short, factual caption; there is also a very spare bibliography and a comprehensive index, along with a world map that indicates 45 sites where Museum teams have worked.

The title of this book, Adventures in Photography, gives a good sense of its overall approach, evoking the persistence of popular interest in the picturesque and exotic. A comment in Pezzati's introduction shows that the nineteenth-century admiration for photography's putative objectivity has also retained some of its force: "One of the most powerful forms of media to convey information about and advance understanding of foreign people and places is photography. Photographs offer a kind of documentation not found in artists' renderings or the written word" (pp. 13-14). Pezzati does go on to acknowledge that photographs can be understood in different ways at different times and that many of the nineteenth-century images of indigenous peoples concentrate on those aspects of their lives that would appear most alien to the photographer's western audience. He does not, however, address the more contemporary interpretive view that regards photographs as cultural products, controlled by various conventions of representation.

In short, this is not a volume that makes any claims to scholarly or analytical depth. It is rather a keepsake, celebrating the history of the Museum's activity abroad over the past 125 years. The halftone reproductions are only adequate, but they do afford some pleasure and some instruction. Some of the pleasure comes from a largely predictable array of recognizable personae: chubby children, elaborately painted and costumed dancers, muscular bow hunters and fishermen, old women with seamed faces and young women nursing infants, a pensive robed mendicant. In what may be a nod to the famous "Family of Man," such figures are selected to suggest, simultaneously, the diversity of cultural practices and shared human concerns. (Readers of BMCR will enjoy a picture from the early 1930's of Agnes K. Lake washing a marble Roman portrait head in a tin tub.)

As for instruction, the photographs sketch some of the evolution in archaeological techniques. Several of the pictures show large troops of laborers, drawn from the local population, and in early times equipped with only the most rudimentary tools. Gradually there appear aerial and underwater views, which make possible more attention to surveys and settlement patterns. Likewise, the anthropological studies move away from a sentimental or voyeuristic evocation of what Evelyn Waugh called "delight in the foreignness of foreigners" toward a more nuanced depiction.

The photographs also remind us of the ongoing dilemma of cultural property. In 1839 François Arago had extolled photography's ability to capture Egyptian hieroglyphs. As we know all too well, it is often the case that scholars and travelers have not been content simply to take away images from archaeological sites (or indigenous communities). Plate 14 shows a desert landscape with palm trees on the horizon and, in the foreground, a cleared space with four columns surrounded by a cluster of workers. Pezzati's caption reads in its entirety, "Memphis, Egypt, 1915. General view of the Palace of the pharaoh Merneptah (ca. 1236 - 1223 B.C.) showing progress of the excavations. The inscribed and painted columns are now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Photograph by Bechari (neg. G6-33944)." One could hardly ask for a more succinct demonstration of the elaborate interplay between photography, archaeology and acquisition.

Read Latest
Index for 2003
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:50, Friday, 03 April 2009