It is hard to avoid observing the growing trend of camera use in museums. The ubiquitous transition to digital cameras that can easily travel with us in our pockets or even phones has made the photograph a very different thing for the traveler. We’ve all seen museum visitors walking about the gallery with their camera held up, looking at the digital screen rather than the real painting. The casual digital photographer records his or her experiences without the constraints of film or heavy equipment. Attitudes towards quality have also slipped thanks to digital, freeing the photographer from restrictions of taste. The camera lens is indiscriminant of what it sees and sometimes this causes the photographer to be the same. Nothing is too sacred or meaningless as to be spared the click of the digital camera.
Sometimes it seems that the photographic duplication of paintings slowly sucks their souls away and diffuses their power. Often a museum itself reproduces a special piece and hangs it around as advertisements. Before you ever get to the original you’ve seen it a dozen times at different sizes and with text printed across them. Seeing all those reproductions encourages people to take one home with them in the form of a snapshot. Photography in museums reflects an attitude that art available to the public belongs to the public— it does not, in my belief.
Mindless museum photography has always made my blood boil. Even in the greatest serenity, it takes some effort to appreciate artwork in a museum. The sheer amount of diverse pieces in close proximity takes patience to enjoy. To have shutters clicking about the gallery space breaks the connection between the art and its viewers. The illusion snaps off and the artwork is momentarily reduced to its materials—a painting simply becomes a rectangle of wood, fiber, oil and pigment. The flashes that we are begged by guards and signs not to use can actually physically damage the strength of the pigments in the artwork. Still, plenty of flashes go off without a care.
Part of me supposes that people take photos out of a fear of the art. Perhaps they fear they are not smart enough to “get it” so instead “take it” to feel included. Also, there is a fear that one won’t remember the artwork after leaving the museum and the camera helps save the pieces for later. However, less is remembered if one the camera does all the work of looking; you wont “get it” if you don’t try. It’s scary to miss out on the world. People using a camera to interact with the world are there but not there. They are not taking full responsibility for their presence. The camera forces the artwork to submit to our time. The true potency of painting is that there is no off switch. Paintings are free of time, and as art writer Siri Hustvedt writes, “ painting is there all at once”. Photography minces that timelessness up— it confuses the senses and makes one feel that the painting is something that once happened and not something that continues to happen.
I remember going to visit the Louvre in 2005 and completely avoiding the room that houses the Mona Lisa. This famous masterpiece is impossible to see in any reasonable privacy as its hounded like a rockstar by throngs of visitors. Walking past the entrance and feeling the orgy of onlookers jostle for an angle to snap a pic was enough to raise my hackles. It seemed like a stoning was taking place inside, with everyone gathering around to take a crack at Da Vinci’s girl. It was inconceivable for me at the time to want to join that crowd. What is odd regarding the use of cameras in this bustling scene, is how by trying to be an individual photographer, one becomes anonymous. Taking a picture should mean that the photographer is creating a record of their personal experience but, as with the mass in front of the Mona Lisa, their pictures are recording a collective experience.
Like a balloon hissing air, the Mona Lisa’s soul has been let out, photo by photo. The unending snapshots have deflated the balloon entirely and begun to refill it with an even stranger soul. The painting now represents the photos, rather than the other way around. Her iconography is far larger than the mere painting. The number of Mona Lisa photos grows exponentially. Perhaps one day the pictures of her will outweigh the population of living humans.
Of course there are many intentions for photographing artwork and it isn’t always obvious why. I just saw the work of photographer Jorma Puranen who captures beautiful images of glare on the varnish of paintings. The glare distorts the painted image and becomes something new and interesting. Still, the camera in the gallery space will always seem a bit intrusive and even a discreet photographer can disrupt the peace.
Recently I’ve been trying to convert my judgmental tendencies to thoughtfulness. I have to remind myself that even without a camera one can approach a painting with private insensitivity. To see artwork too briefly, out of context, or incompletely can be just as inappropriate. My appreciation of artwork is rarely ideal and museum photography is probably annoying to me because it reminds me that I could do a better job of experiencing artwork. Righteousness is isolating and since museum photography isn’t fading anytime soon, I figured I should add camera-sight to my experience rather than hold a quiet grudge. I’ve actually found that museum photography can lend an additional perspective rather than limit my own. I try to be inconspicuous and not disturb others as I examine details and interior compositions with the camera. With each photo though, I charge myself to observe more closely. Art is an impossible beast to capture and so long as the camera is helping us get closer rather than farther it can be an invaluable tool. The difference, as always, is how mindful we are with our tools.