Saturday, January 18, 2014

Taking Photos in Museums

I'm bad about taking pictures in museums. I keep my phone camera on and ready in my coat pocket, tell-tale "click sound" off, watching for guards. Until publicly scolded I'll snap stealth closeups of brushstrokes,

From a Monet at the Museum of Fine Arts

Monet's brushstrokes!
how things look in frames, 

Corot in a period Barbizon frame at the Currier Museum, Manchester NH

Miniature William Trost Richardses at the Boston International Fine Art Show
how paintings relate to viewers, for scale,

Bierstadt in the National Gallery

Jasper Cropsey in the National Gallery
and various closeups and images that mean something to me. 

iPhone capture of part of a Corot of which I painted a copy

Nicholas de Stael at the MFA - my first introduction to this painter

Emil Carlsen of the Isles of Shoals, where I too love to paint

Detail of Wm. Trost Richards's deftly painted sea rocks

We're privileged among the painters of history to be able to take such images with us for careful study. 

Yet, rarely does the emphasis on "taking" photos feel so much like stealing.

Burned by art thieves, Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner museum is neurotic about security. There are "don't touch" and "don't sit" signs on practically every stone bench and volute and security guards in every room and corridor (they're not all bored art school grads either). Mostly they're looking for phones The signs don't say "no photographs" they say "no cellphone use," period. For once, I didn't try any "funny stuff."

At this point, museums need to get over it. Are you with me?

No flash photos - fine, got it. But mobile pics of paintings on Facebook or blogs? The best free advertising a museum could ask for. It increases the art's fame, further inspiring more people to visit and snap selfies and pix of the real thing.

Some museums get it. The National Gallery in D.C. maintains an open-access online archive via which you can freely view and download some 32,000 high-resolution images of the most spectacular paintings in the museum's collections. Same is true for the National Gallery in London which offers a vast database of downloadable images and a complete A-Z list of the artists in the collection.

Where museums do allow photography, some find it gauche or downright harmful. The Washington Post took the opposite view, shooting down criticism about people with mobile phones stalking through galleries like bird watchers or hunters on the prowl, "plugged into their phones rather than interacting" with each other or, indeed, with the art itself. It's worth a read. For the negative viewpoint, here's the New Criterion's (IMHO stuffy) article, "The Overexposed Museum" on how smartphone use is "cheapening the art experience" and should be banned. And here's another one celebrating "the undeniably positive effect" of selfies and other mobile phone uses in museums,  "How Instagram is Keeping Art Alive."

I would never have known about Yayoi Kusama's cool NYC installation "Infinity Mirrored Room" if not for social media.
As the latter points out, social media is certainly intersecting with art's public presence in interesting ways:

"Banksy's October residency in NYC was largely driven by his use of Instagram, and (as the NY Times pointed out in a snarkily titled article "Art for the Selfie Set,") for better or worse, the chance to capture a cosmic selfie played a big role in drawing crowds to Yayoi Kusama's show at the David Zwirner Gallery. Larger audiences and increased awareness of their work is great for these artists, and they have the omnipresence of smartphones to thank."

I think that's true. I also agree with the Washington Post writer that there's something endearing about museum-goers so enamored of paintings that they long to come away with a small physical token (if digital images count as physical) of their personal experience. And even though you can buy (or indeed freely download) from the museum a superior image of the art, she writes, taking your own snapshot helps jog your memory about why you fell in love with it. 

Here's an excerpt from that one:

"the colors in the (photos) I took are more saturated, and when I look at them I see more easily some of the details I was focusing on in the museum, while the official reproductions force me to start a new dialogue from scratch. Also: My pictures are on my cellphone, in my pocket, in between two snapshots of my son.... When I flip through my photos I sometimes zoom in to see the butterfly-dance of light on the back of Madame Monet’s dress, or the elusive shadow at the lower right of the picture, which hardly shows up in the official reproduction. I’m still looking at them. And they’re mine."

Scandalous "photo bomb" from Tumblr.

What do you think?


  1. Thanks for sharing...I like Nicholas's work, too!

  2. Thanks Sue! I did a whole post on Saint Nick here in case you missed it.

  3. I found your blog through searching for info on Nicholas de Stael - so glad to discover his work and yours. Thank you!

  4. I totally agree with the idea of "having your on photograph of stuff in museums" should be OK. I don't sell those images, I just troll through them at times and reminisce... or use them for painting practice references. Oh, and the public rebuke by the Gardner staff has kept me away from there for years.

    1. Yeah Dana - sadly, on a visit last week I found the Gartner downright oppressive.

  5. Yayoi Kusama--Wow. It took me awhile to understand what I was looking at. In the words of Liz Lemon: "I want to go to there." Thanks once again for slipping me into your pocket along with your smartphone.

  6. i couldn't agree with you more.....with the current restrictions it begs the question - Why have them on view if we can't take some steps to helping us understand them! i used to feel badly if i took a quick i kinda feel 'ha, got it'....

    another very useful and helpful post!