Sunday, 11 October 2009

Photography in Art Galleries

Today I went to have a pleasant Sunday afternoon wander around Walker Art Gallery. I adore this type of gallery, the comforting provenance of the place and the encompassing and incongruous collection makes me feel right at home.

Standing in the sculpture gallery, surrounded by sinewless alabaster bodies with globular unfocused eyes, watching a small oriental man photograph everything in sight, I had an almost disorientating sense of déjà vu. I was momentarily transported back to that odd time two years ago when I worked as a gallery assistant at Gunther Van Hagens' Body Worlds. Although photography was strictly forbidden, it was a constant battle with the public. They seemed compelled the touch and photograph the bodies, often becoming quite combative when challenged.

A little later, while having a wander through the John Moore’s winners, three Spanish tourists were systematically photographing every painting in the gallery. Barely pausing to look at what they were snapping, they moved briskly from painting to painting, capturing each in shoddy digital renderings. Another room, another person was photographing, and in the next the same again. On this early Sunday afternoon, the photographers seemed to out number the lookers.

Now, Walker Art Gallery allows photography. I have no issue with that decision. I know how almost impossible it is to stop people. What I question is why people feel the need to almost systematically photograph every painting their eye falls upon?

It has become a fact of our contemporary age, that when disaster strikes, people film and photograph. The statement that photographers felt compelled to place the camera between themselves and the unfolding horrors, such as during 9/11, has become a truism. Is it this which makes people feel they must photograph every painting on display? Like disaster, must art be mitigated by the lens?

Perhaps I have become a very angry person. I felt a deep disgust for those who could not refrain from touching the corpses, and this disgust is mingled with pity for those who seem unable to look at a work of art. I doubt these people are taking away their photographs and tenderly looking at them later. What else can these photographs do but evoke the experience of looking at the artwork and if they barely looked at the art work, what is the point of it all?

Britain has become very good at shedding taboos, bum sex and homosexuality are positively trendy. I’m a fan of both. A permissive society is generally understood to be a good thing. However, just because it’s allowed by rule, like ugly men with far right politics, does it mean we shouldn’t frown and say something? Personally, I’d like to thump both photographers and fascists round the back of the head, but I probably won’t. I think we should all just participate in a campaign of frowning and hushed mumbling, just so those pesky photographers understand what they are doing may be technically okay, but so they feel like the twats they are.

Let’s create a new taboo: the casual painting photographer. Who’s with me?


adebond said...

Great post on an interesting subject that's getting more relevent now that everybody has a camera on their person incorporated into a phone. I think that the increased legitamacy of public journalism has opened up so many avenues in reporting on world wide events, just look at the news breaking on the plane landing in the Hudson river or the protests in Iran for evidence.

The problem is the increasing ratio in the difference between quality & quantity & the dramatic rise in digital noise. You have to ask yourself how many of those gallery visitors are actually going to go back to those images & take a virtual tour through the exhibition. Very few I imagine. Instead those pixels are probably destined to languish on a harddrive & the physical memory of the experience quickly vanish from their minds.

But what do I know? I'm just a hypocryte having taken my
camera into the Sistine Chapel & felt dirty & disgusted with myself for doing so.

Ella said...
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Anonymous said...

An excellent post. I'd add though that although photographing paintings is largely counterproductive due to light conditions, it's a different matter when you find sculptures; these can be absolutely wonderful to bounce light off and appreciate in new ways.

Slightly OT: pet hate of mine - amateur concert photographers, see rant at

Louise said...

I don't understand it. I become very obviously angered. Quite aggressive. Maybe we should become a bit more aggressive and actually punch people. Make it an intervention/performance piece.

The worst case I've seen of this strange and annoying phenomena was at the Louvre a few years ago. I was blinded by camera flashes and could barely catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa. What really gets me is that there are about a million postcards for sale everywhere with a decent print, at least better than a reflected light beam in a pane of glass. It boggles the mind.

One reason for this is that people can't accept that they have seen or experienced something without having photographic evidence of it. The joke is they won't even look at the image after taking it as adebond says. I have to admit that I occasionally take photos of objects I'm really interested in for research purposes. But it's not of everybloodything I look at and at least I experience it before I decide to photograph it. That's my excuse.

Rosie said...


Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog. I really like it. I am a fine art student. Sometimes I photograph paintings because it's difficult to find a reproduction and I need it for study. Please don't punch me if you see me.