Style and Content
The Byzantine Institute staff kept detailed records during filming. Their fieldwork notebooks describe the subjects and settings of individual shots, as well as the amount of film and light sources used. This meticulous record-keeping even makes it possible to identify individual staff members who appear in the footage. These notes also tell us something about the films that - unfortunately - have been lost or did not survive. Using this written documentation, we can fill in the gaps and imagine the wealth of motion pictures made by the Byzantine Institute’s photographer Pierre Iskender in his effort to capture the mosaics of Istanbul.
The thirteen (13) extant films held at ICFA vary in subject matter and differ stylistically. The EXHIBIT ITEMS below are scans of the fieldwork notebooks that demonstrate a conscious shift in the Byzantine Institute's filmmaking from a somewhat "romantic" style to a more documentary approach.
The earliest movie produced by the Byzantine Institute is different from all the others, in terms of the subjects depicted and the way they are portrayed. The film has a distinct anthropological approach. During the time that the Byzantine Institute worked at the Red Sea Monasteries of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul in Egypt, staff were mainly focused on cleaning and documenting the frescoes inside the churches. However, the black and white film documenting the sites shows neither the interior of the churches nor the frescoes within. Instead, the film is a portrait of the landscape surrounding the monasteries and local men engaged in their day-to-day activities. While we do not have any written documentation related to the making of this earliest film, it can be assumed that Thomas Whittemore was inspired by the production of motion picture films by related archaeological initiatives like the Egypt Exploration Society (EES), with which Whittemore was involved in some capacity throughout the 1910s to 1920s. The EES films mainly focus on the local people and workers employed at excavation sites. Another element in common with these archaeological films is the depiction of the active involvement of fieldwork directors, as evidenced by the portrayal of Thomas Whittemore riding a camel to the Red Sea Monasteries.
This early experimental approach to moving pictures changed significantly with the commencement of systematic documentation of the mosaics at Hagia Sophia in 1936. The Institute’s photographer Pierre Iskender was tasked with shooting the films, which were intentionally filmed in color to show the splendor of the mosaics. Every figural and ornamental mosaic is documented in their before and after stages of cleaning, showing details and general views in turn. The Hagia Sophia films do not display any interest in local people or the site's surroundings. They focus solely on the main subject of the work carried out by the Byzantine Institute, the uncovering of the mosaics in Hagia Sophia (and later also in Kariye Camii).
As moving pictures formed an increasingly important part of the documentation of the Byzantine Institute's work, the films began to depict the techniques used in the cleaning and restoration of the mosaics. Notebook entries in the collection show that as early as 1937, films were made specifically to showcase the advanced methods employed in the difficult task of preserving the precious mosaics of Hagia Sophia. Thomas Whittemore is portrayed as the field director, making important decisions, directing the fieldworkers in their tasks, and observing the progress of the project.