Archaeological Photography; Still-life; Illuminating the Divine

Going through the British Institute Archive, photographs of an early British expedition to Jerash caught my eye. Photography as still life. From the age when archaeological illustration was an art in itself, and not merely a necessity for getting one’s paper accepted in a journal. There is not only the desire to convey information (vessel type, period, context), but the photos most importantly are worthy of gazing upon in themselves. They do not merely represent objects; they are objects. They apprehend the pottery in a way that cannot be repeated. This most human form of subjectified object-ification is what lacks in modern-day impersonal object display.

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Most beautiful are the photos of the head of Zeus. The statue is inseparable from the light in which it is enveloped, which lends it a granular, spiritual quality. Illuminations. The photos bring out the light of the divine, as described by the Mesopotamians and Greeks in their descriptions of their statues, which cannot be apprehended by our blind eyes –when human Semele gazes upon her lover Zeus’s true form, she ‘is consumed by the fire of her nuptial gift’. Akkadian statues of deities are said to ‘shine like the sun’; statues were  organic, imbued with deity itself, who manifested its presence by emanating light from raw matter. The Greeks no doubt inherited this vision of the living deity through its shining cult statue: many cult statues were coated in gold or bronze, in order to bring out the shining quality of the gods they object-ified. Photography, the writing of light, brings out the statue’s melammu, its awe-inspiring splendor, to the irreligious (and undrugged) eye.

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‘Stone the solid, yet the habitat of soft light like the glow of flesh, is the material, so I shall maintain, that inspires all the visual arts. Marble statues of the gods are the gods themselves. For they are objects as if alive which enjoy complete outwardness’

-Adrian Stokes

(also, I recommend this photographic essay from the Met which explores light on its Greek statue collection. the light doesn’t come from the statues themselves though, as they do in these unique photos from the British Institute).

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