How an obscure statue became our face of King Tut’s 100-year anniversary
For over 25 years Sandro Vannini has been using high-resolution photography to preserve ancient Egyptian artifacts.
Published October 18, 2022
6 min read
The golden mask of ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, affectionately known as Tut, the boy king, is world famous. But other artifacts found in his tomb in November 1922 are more obscure, including two statues that stood guard outside his burial chamber. They depict Tut as Osiris, god of the underworld, their skin painted black as a symbol of death.
Sandro Vannini, an acclaimed Italian photographer who has devoted nearly three decades to documenting Egyptian artifacts, was delighted to capture one of the two life-size black-and-gold statues for National Geographic’s November cover. The issue commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb—the treasures of which will soon be on display at the new Grand Egyptian Museum, or the GEM, in Cairo.
We spoke to Vannini about what it means to photograph delicate, beloved artifacts for such a momentous occasion—and for his first National Geographic cover, no less.
What’s the story behind the cover?
Vannini began his work in Egypt during the rise of digital photography. He aims to shoot antiquities in a way that evokes emotion and preserves their historical significance. He was drawn to this particular project for those reasons.
Photographing the tomb presented a new challenge, because he wouldn’t have much control over the lighting inside the GEM. Its large windows reflected light off the multicolored semiprecious stones and gold metal objects that filled the room.
So Vannini created a small, makeshift studio by draping a transparent cloth around the perimeter of the statue, giving the effect of a white room. Then he adjusted for the light reflections from those priceless objects in his postproduction edits.
“In postproduction, we can change highlights and lowlights,” he says. “Each time we change the light in photography, we are not changing the light on a material.”
Vannini hopes readers will feel the emotion that went into capturing these images.
“Each photo is a piece of my work but also is a moment of my life,” he says. “Taking a photo means nothing if others don’t see it.”
What’s featured on the cover?
The photographer submitted the image of the guardian statue for consideration for the cover and was pleased that the lesser known relic was chosen over the more recognizable gold mask.
Vannini creates his images of antiquities by capturing several frames, each using various lighting techniques, then layering them together in postproduction to create a final, beautifully lit photograph. For this assignment, he took about 48 photos of the guardian statue and combined them to create the cover image. Likewise, he took about 160 photographs of the gold mask.
Vannini argues that digital photography is largely a postproduction project and the best way to capture artifacts.
“I never shoot a picture just to shoot a picture,” he says. “We can achieve these kinds of [images] only if we use the full potential of postproduction.”
What does this cover mean personally?
A photographer since he first picked up a camera in the 1970s, Vannini has been capturing Egyptian artifacts around the world since 1997. To be tasked with an assignment tied to a historic anniversary was particularly exciting for him.
He credits the world’s enduring fascination with King Tut to the era when the pharaoh’s tomb was first discovered—a time when the world yearned for good news after a devastating war. The discovery of unparalleled treasure in a country with a rich, captivating ancient history signaled a new renaissance.
“Tut remains the most important edge of an ancient civilization in the world’s imagination,” Vannini says.
The photographer has witnessed the beginning of Egypt’s repatriation movement, which calls for objects sold decades ago to return to their country of origin. He says it’s important to remember that at the time the government thought selling the artifacts was its best option. But, he adds, it’s important now to address returning them to Egypt.
Ultimately, Vannini says, any authority that wants to claim ownership over these artifacts has a responsibility to preserve and maintain them, so they can be used to help educate others.
“Archaeology is the way to understand the past; it is not done to discover treasures,” he says. “We do not understand the history through gold pieces. This is a job to be done with consciousness.”
Vannini thinks photographers have a distinct role to play when it comes to documenting historical artifacts. He views such work as recordkeeping: Should any of the objects he’s photographed require repairs or restoration, his high-quality images could help reference what was lost.
What’s next for the photographer?
Vannini is working on different projects related to Tutankhamun, including a new television series and a centennial-edition book set to be published by the end of year.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.