My Fayum…

Sandra Kontos moved to Athens in 1993 to pursue her studies in archaeology and photography. Photography and archaeology share many qualities, namely they both record or archive the past. It was during this time she discovered the Fayum portraits (first and second centuries A.D.) They fascinated her, “Here I found myself gazing directly into the eyes of people from the ancient world.” Captivated by their melancholic beauty and the mystery surrounding their ancient faces, dress and jewellery, Kontos intensely studied these exquisite portraits. The portraits accompany mummified bodies and were painted on wooden panels by anonymous artists. Euphrosyne C. Doxiadis writes, “Of these two strands [the Greek painting tradition and Egyptian funerary beliefs], the sophistication of the first and the intensity of the second combined to produce moments of breathtaking beauty and unsettling presence.” [1]

Almost a decade later, whilst studying at UNSW COFA, Sandra Kontos experimented with Polaroid transfers. This photographic image transfer process was time consuming and produced fragile unpredictable images. The materiality of the results was a stark reminder of the textured surfaces of the Fayum portraits. Kontos paired the portraits with tea stained replicated maps of the Fayum region. The Fayum “… as it appeared c.1800, when it was surveyed by Napoleon’s Commission. This map, from the Descriptionde l’Egypte, vividly suggests the lush cultivated land, with its small fields, surrounded by rocky escarpments.” [2] This was a definite nod to her Athens days and the magnificent lessons of her archaeological teacher Aggeliki Papadopoulou. Pairing the portraits with the map was also a way of memorializing the dead; of establishing a sense of place for those depicted. An act of making the absent present.

With the discontinuation of Polaroid, this series of portraits now sit precariously in the digital age. The colours of Polaroid 669 film and the tea stained paper stock are unreproducible. These portraits are what Kontos loves about analogue photography. “The process is slow and vivid, random elements are revealed and they are unique objects imbued with the hand of the artist.” Geoffrey Batchen talks about rediscovering photography in the digital age. Sandra Kontos’ photographs are chemical events, actions that occur directly onto the paper stock. [3] The images are made not taken.


Sandra Kontos, Fayum Portrait, 2004


[1] The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits From Roman Egypt, accessed 22 December 2015,

[2] Doxiadis, Euphrosyne, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits Faces from Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, 1995, p. 228.

[3] Batchen, Geoffrey. Blindness and Insight: Photography and/as Ruin, Symposium – The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg, SCA Auditorium, Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney, 5 December 2015, Keynote Address.


C19th Mortuary Photography – The Illusion of Sleep.

Postmortem Photograph of a Child

Postmortem photograph of unidentified child. Harrison, Lock Heaven, Pa., ca. 1890-1910. Tinted gelatin silver print on cardboard mount, carte de visite. Courtesy, Center for Visual Communication, Mifflintown, Pa.

The enduring tradition of painted mortuary portraits precedes Nineteenth century mortuary photography. Jay Ruby writes, “The association of death and sleep is as old as Western culture itself. In classical Greece, the sons of the night were Hypnos, god of sleep, and his twin, Thanatos, god of death.” (1)

The denial of death was a pictorial convention that prevailed during the Nineteenth century. “People did not die. They went to sleep.” (2) The “last sleep” was a popular theme in mortuary photography because it beautified death by creating the illusion of sleep. With the high infant mortality rates during this time, mourning was a normal part of life. Memorialising the deceased was common and mortuary photographs were often displayed in the home.

A photograph retained the memory of the deceased and was also a lasting reminder that we have no power over death, a memento mori. The young boy (pictured above) is dressed in his Sunday best and it was probably the first and last time he was photographed. The photographer has adhered to the prevailing ideology of the day, and the boy appears to be sleeping. The photograph is a carte de visite, a small photograph that was relatively inexpensive to produce. The carte de visite was hugely popular and people would collect, trade or send them to loved ones. I cannot help asking whether his mother still carried him, even after his death, in her pocket.


1. J Ruby, Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, Twelvetrees Press, 1990, p. 63.

2. ibid.


J Ruby, Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, Twelvetrees Press, 1990, p. 66.

Adam Fuss – The Mirrored Surface; Daguerreotypes in the Digital Age.


Adam Fuss, My Ghost, 2001. Daguerreotype, 27.9 x 35.6 cm.

Sekula’s claim, that the history of photography is haunted by “two chattering ghosts,” seems a perfect statement when discussing My Ghost by Adam Fuss, 2001. Fuss liberally and literally draws on the pictorial and technological history of photography in this series of images. The image in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ collection, is a sumptuous and ephemeral milky blue daguerreotype of a wing spanned white swan. The polished plate creates a mesmerizing otherworldly image coupled with the fact that symbolically, “The swan can be read historically as a mythical creature alluding to love and death…”  (1)

Even today, a daguerreotype holds the viewer, it is a magical experience to see one up close. I now comprehend how powerful these images would have originally been to a Victorian audience. Immediately I think to myself, is this Zeus, disguised as a swan descending from the heavens to seduce Leda? No, it is Fuss, captivating his audience, creating a little yelp in the minds and hearts of those of us obsessed with the history of photography and alternative analogue printing processes.

According to Sekula, every photograph is sending a message. So what message is Fuss sending the viewer? In 1840, Edgar Allen Poe described the daguerreotype thus, “In truth the daguerreotype plate is infinitely more accurate than any painting by human hands… the photographic drawing discloses only a more absolute truth, more perfect identity of aspect with the thing represented.” (2)  This is one of the ghosts that Sekula speaks of, the ghost of objectivity. Sekula writes of photographic discourse and the authoritative voice of photography as evidence, truth and of affirmation. (3)  For Sekula photographic meaning is linked to context. Fuss draws on these definitions inherent in photography’s history in My Ghost.


William Henry Talbot, Articles of China, c. 1844. Salt print from a Calotype paper negative printed image, 13.4 X 18 cm.

Fuss documents the swan in a scientific way. Similarly, in ‘The Pencil of Nature,’ William Henry Talbot employed the objective photographic eye to compile an inventory of the china and glass cabinets in his home at Lacock Abbey. Yet at the same time, Talbot recognized the capabilities this new technology had upon representation and art. This is Sekula’s opposing ghost, the ghost of aestheticism.

In this age of digital imaging, to come across images produced in this labour intensive process is so very rare and even more exciting. Grundberg writes, “It’s easy to see Fuss’s cameraless photograms and latter-day daguerreotypes as reactions to our digital era, in which photography’s ring of truth has a hollow sound.” (4)  A daguerreotype is a “unique-and-precious-object” that cannot be reproduced unlike proceeding photographic processes.  (5)

Fuss titles the series, My Ghost, effectively alluding to the history of mortuary photography and the photograph as a memento mori. In a singular image, Fuss has captured both these ghosts. The clinical pose of the dead swan is set free, imbued with a spiritual quality as it floats hauntingly in a milky blue sky. Grundberg writes, “Fuss’s photographs might be said to superimpose the presence of absence on the absence of presence.”  (6)

V&A Channel. Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography. Adam Fuss – This is a revealing and evocative look at Adam’s Fuss’s working environment and an insight into his creative ideas.


1. Art Gallery of New South Wales, 20 December 2012, <;

2. A. Sekula, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ in Thinking Photography, ed. Victor Burgin, London: Macmillan, 1982, p. 87.

3. ibid., p. 85.

4. A. Grundberg, ‘Adam Fuss’. Artforum, Vol. 41, Issue 1, September 2002, viewed 20 December 2012, <;

5. Sekula, op.cit., p. 95.

6. A. Grundberg, ‘My Ghost’. Artforum, Vol. 9, Issue 2, Summer 2002, viewed on 20 December 2012, <;


Adam Fuss

William Henry Talbot