August 6th, 2014

The Case of the Missing Mummy

When I heard that whafford was hot on the trail of a missing mummy, I knew I wanted in. (Technically it wasn't a mummy, but it's more exciting to say mummy.)

He'd been reading through Sir Leonard Woolley's notes from the excavation at the city of Ur for years, so new finds and theories were frequent dinner conversation (my favorite previously were the diary entries in reaction to the dig site getting a Victrola. Some of the potentates really liked it, others thought it distracted the workers, Woolley wrote that the Arab music the staff was listening to was "a cacophony".)

Last week I got a chance, under high security and a strict embargo, to see and photograph the 6,500 year old human remains, lost for 85 years in the basement of a museum.

I won't write about the mummy, it's loss, or it's discovery, because Randy Lobasso does a great job of that right here in the Philly Weekly.

Cover of this week's Philadelphia Weekly.
You may clickenzee to read the article.

As of right now (early in the morning August 6th) it looks like the story is going big. The Daily Mail picked it up last night but neglected to credit me for my photos (what else is new). We were trending in Google's top stories.

It's going big....
You may clickenzee to embiggen

I can talk about the photography though.

Tell it with shadows

Shadows are how we identify things, they tell stories, they show detail. The best time to photograph the moon, for example, is not when it is full, because there are no shadows, so there's no texture to the surface.

I'd heard that the mummy was in a crate and it was difficult to photograph, so I brought a lighting kit with a whole bunch of experimental options for getting light inside a box (including iPads, which I wrote a Videomaker article about using as light sources) -- since this guy was a person, I wanted to light him like a person, the way I would if they'd sent me to photograph some Senator. It's important to be able to get the light close to your subject and I was worried about the tall sides of a crate (If you haven't, now is the time for you to read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's story Lot 249 about an Oxford student who has a mummy in a crate and it wakes up and does all sorts of terrible things.)

I wanted to get a relatively close raking light with soft shadows across his face.

Dr. Brad and Dr. Janet (not kidding) took me down to a room that actually says "Mummy Room" on the door and I was relieved to see that the crate had very low sides. This was going to be easy. I set up a Photek Softlighter II (the small one) on a very low light stand and pretended it was an ordinary portrait. Brad & Janet started talking about various bits of the mummy, so I turned the light up and lit them and did a few photos like that as well. I used a Leica D800, with a Sigma 12-24 and a 50mm f1.8.

But take a look at this side-by-side:

With a grazing soft light, and with ordinary overhead lighting.
You may clickenzee to embiggen

Here's the difference between a close, angled, directional light, and the overheads that were already in the room. You can see the overheads don't really cast much in the way of shadows and the detail is harder to see and, I think, our guy has less of a human personality. I have a Videomaker article coming out soon that discusses the difference between something being "well lit" and something being "properly lit".

Good photos, in my biased opinion, are important in getting people to pay attention. (So is a well written press release, and they had that too.) The Google Alerts have been going off like fireworks.

Here's what it looked like in the Mummy Room with the natural light.

Thoughts on mummies, museums, lighting, archaeology or anything related? Let's hear it.

Behind the scenes in the mummy room.
You may clickenzee to embiggen

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