I took this photo of Emma (2002) at the 2014-2015 Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). At first glance, you would think Emma is mosaic-like painting that uses geometric shapes and varied tones to render the beautifully beaming face of a baby. However, from just looking at this photo, you probably wouldn’t know that Emma is a remarkable Japanese style woodcut print that was created from 27 individual blocks, 113 colours and 132 pressings per print. In the art-world, photographs do not do justice.
The issue of photographing works in art galleries and museums is highly contentious and subject to the different perspectives of contending stakeholders. For art institutions, restrictive photography policies fundamentally reflect their business agenda (Palmer 2014). Allowing visitors to take their own photos depletes the revenue streams of the highly strategic post-viewing gift shop experience – the exorbitant prints, scarves, books, stationery and other obscure albeit desirable pieces designed for a place on our coffee tables. This business strategy is made clear on the website of Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA):
Still photography for personal use is allowed in the permanent galleries only. No flashes or tripods, please. No videos or photographs may be reproduced, distributed, sold or displayed on personal websites without our permission. There are some postcards and other delightful paraphernalia in the shop.
Photography regulations are also enforced by art galleries for conservation purposes as flash photography is feared to cause physical damage to fragile works (Evans 2013). Some museums also have a responsibility to protect intellectual property agreements with donors and lenders (Palmer 2014).
Yet from an audience’s perspective, photo-taking allows visitors to memorialise museum experiences (Simon 2009). This is true of my photo of Emma which is immortalised on my phone as a pleasurable reminder of my astonishment learning about Chuck’s innovative artistic practice.
Some people also argue that creating a personal record of an experience can encourage further engagement and learning. For example, an individual’s analysis of Instagram photos of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery revealed that people are actually looking at art and picking out unusual details, not just being snap-happy (Korey 2014). The author concludes that Instagram photos can amount to a modern form of social commentary (Korey 2014). Despite being rather interesting, I am critical of this approach given its selection bias. I am also not convinced that some of the photos shown are truly indicative of meaningful social commentary.
At the same time, perhaps I am mistaken to assume that art gallery selfies do not hold any value. In 2008, a team led by former MIT researcher Henry Jenkins published a white paper entitled “If it Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead” arguing that media artefacts have the greatest impact when consumers are able to pass on, reuse, adapt and remix them (Simon 2010, p.172). Does this mean all the Mona Lisa memes and The Scream appropriations circulating the Internet could actually be contributing to the value of these masterpieces? Many art galleries are now encouraging visitors to use photographs to interact on social media (Furness 2014). This not only helps exhibitors expand their reach, but also supports visitors’ “process of meaning making” (Simon 2010, p.173).
Despite the potential benefits of social media photo sharing, many people are still critical of the use of cameras in the gallery space. In a powerfully compelling article, English art critic Jonathan Jones (2009) reflects on how the Louvre’s open photography policy has “killed” the Mona Lisa:
…at least people should be prevented from ruining others’ pleasure with this incessant electric lightshow. The museum seems to have given up enforcing its own rules. It lets the bullying snappers do their worst.
Most museums and art galleries around the world have succumb to public pressure and abandoned efforts to enforce policies on photography that have become increasingly hard to police (Crompton 2014). This is summed up by Carolyn Murphy, head of conservation at the Art Gallery of NSW:
People do those things so quickly, the guard might just be turning the other direction and it’s done.
By allowing photography, art galleries and museums have turned into tourist traps instead of places of reflection and calm contemplation. For centuries, art has been a way of making us slow down and take a moment to stop, think and examine something in detail. After all, do you think Cameron could have had his moment standing quietly, pensively, privately in front of Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte if he were amid jostling camera-snapping crowds? Art is serious. It is not light entertainment.
On the website of the Vatican Museums in Vatican City, Italy, the second oldest museum in the world and home to the world-famous Sistine Chapel, an important warning is emphasised in bold type font: “the use of telescopic “selfie sticks” is forbidden”. Indeed, protecting these sanctuaries has now become more important than ever before.
Check out a collaborative research project I undertook on this subject here:
Crompton, S 2014, ‘Why you shouldn’t take photos in galleries’, Telegraph, 13 August, accessed 27 September 2015, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/11030975/Why-you-shouldnt-take-photos-in-galleries.html>.
Evans, MH 2013, ‘Amateur Photographers in Art Galleries: Assessing the harm done by flash photography’, University of Cambridge, accessed 27 September 2015, <http://people.ds.cam.ac.uk/mhe1000/musphoto/flashphoto2.htm>.
Furness, H 2014, ‘National Gallery relents over mobile phones’, Telegraph, 12 August, accessed 27 September 2015, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/11028015/National-Gallery-relents-over-mobile-phones.html>.
Jones, J 2009, ‘These tourist snappers are killing the Mona Lisa’, Guardian, 9 March, accessed 27 September 2015, <http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2009/mar/09/mona-lisa-tourist-snappers-louvre>.
Korey, A 2014, ‘What people are photographing in the Uffizi’, ArtTrav, weblog post, 6 October, accessed 27 September 2015, <http://www.arttrav.com/florence/uffizi-photos/>.
Palmer, B 2014, ‘To snap or not to snap?’, Musedia, weblog post, 11 November, accessed 27 September 2015, <https://sites.tufts.edu/musedia/2014/11/>.
Simon, N 2009, ‘Museum Photo Policies Should Be as Open as Possible’, Museum 2.0, weblog post, 20 August, accessed 27 September 2015, <http://museumtwo.blogspot.com.au/2009/08/museum-photo-policies-should-be-as-open.html>.
Simon, N 2010, The Participatory Museum, Museum 2.0, Santa Cruz, California.