Why do we take photos in art galleries?

Art & Lit Culture

The National Gallery first allowed visitors to take photographs of its paintings in 2014, basically because they realised that the rise of smartphone use meant it was just too difficult to prohibit. Many art lovers vocalised their disappointment, claiming that letting photography into the sacred gallery space was a rude violation of quiet looking. Photography, some argued, gets in the way of really experiencing a work of art. It makes the act of viewing a superficial and empty experience that does not keep itself to itself but gets in the way of others, disturbing their time with the art.

The problem with this approach to gallery photography is that it is artificially polarising: it places us, the sophisticated art lovers who really know how to properly appreciate a painting, against them, the rowdy rabble only concerned with snapping away. It risks elitism and snobbishness: the two traits so often associated with art history (a prejudice against which art historians often have to battle). It is also a fundamentally flawed way of examining it. Photography, like looking, is complex and entails something different for every person. It is wrong to assume that a casual snap from a touristy-looking youngster is a lazy way of appreciating art. That photo might be to remind them of something specific they loved in the picture, to show to a loved one, or to study later on. Or the photograph might just make them smile in a few weeks on a rainy afternoon as they scroll through their camera roll. All these reasons for the photography of art are meaningful and justify it.

It is wrong to assume that a casual snap from a touristy-looking youngster is a lazy way of appreciating art.

But I do think that there needs to be a serious and thoughtful criticism surrounding the photography of art. Simply turning our noses up at those who choose to snap paintings on their phone is not enough. There are interesting questions asking to be explored. What need are we fulfilling when we photograph an artwork? Why do we choose to do it? Why, specifically, do more and more people feel the need to photograph themselves with the art? And how does the prevalence of photography in our technophile society shape our perception of what art is?

I believe that a lot of people who choose to photograph an artwork do so to fulfil a sort of need to possess it in some small way. Often this is with the most beautiful paintings. I think we can tell that an artwork is truly beautiful if it encourages and even compels engagement. It’s almost like a human attraction: if somebody fancies someone, they are rarely contented to merely look at them. Visual attraction demands sensory and intellectual engagement of other kinds: conversation, touch, holding, a relationship. Paintings are perhaps the same: their beauty can create a kind of frustrated longing in us, a longing to engage with the image on a deeper level, to integrate ourselves with it. Photography is a way of satiating this longing: it means we can take possession of the painting, adding it to the album of our own lives. It goes on the camera roll alongside photos of friends, family, home, experiences. Photography allows us to weave the artwork into our own personal universe. It is the same impulse felt by art collectors across the centuries, and those in the 19th and 20th centuries who avidly amassed cheap reproductions of paintings, which came free with biscuits or cigarettes.

I wonder if photography would be so prevalent in galleries if we were allowed to touch or even smell the paintings – to engage with them beyond the sense of sight. Would this satiate the same desire to possess, attach oneself to, the beautiful thing? The glass across the painting or around the object that bars us from this tactile experience may encourage photography to compensate for the imposed distance.

The irony here is that the photograph strips the artwork of its tactility altogether. The artwork becomes two-dimensional, and today is more likely to be viewed on a screen than as a print that can be held and touched. This is a problem with those who make photography an integral part of their gallery experience. In photographing an artwork, the viewer transforms it from an object to a mere image. This plays into the western canonised vision of art history as a discipline of the visual image.

There have been widespread attempts in recent decades to draw attention to the inherent materiality of art history; to argue that even those paintings which present themselves as objective windows onto the world are essentially objects, three dimensional things which are shaped by their materials. This materialist approach to art is not only helpful in understanding how artworks were influenced by medium, but also in broadening the scope of art history beyond the image-focussed culture of the West. A return to the concept of art-as-image over art-as-object is limiting and unhelpful, and that is what photographs are doing. Even an artwork with highly complex dimensions – such as performance or installation art – is reduced to a mere 2D image by photography.

The photograph strips the artwork of its tactility

This doesn’t mean we should stop taking photographs. It just means that we need to acknowledge that the photograph will never be a true copy of the painting, just as a cardboard cut-out is not a true copy of a person. It is true that looking at wonderful high-resolution photographs of paintings can be a deeply fulfilling experience – but it should never replace looking at the original. If anything, it should entice you to do so even more, like a starter whetting your appetite for a main meal.

It works the other way around too. Just as a photograph may encourage you to seek out the original, a photograph can testify that you have seen the original. This act of testimony can be deeply personal – photographing a painting you have always wanted to see, so you can take the picture home to your family and proclaim: “I saw this!” But with social media, the act of testimony has outgrown intimate sharing among friends and become broader. The need to declare ‘I was here’ has become stronger for lots of people, and so the selfie steps into the frame. The selfie links viewer and painting with a stark visual language, but the very personal inclusion of the viewer’s own face in the photo makes it impersonal. Words are no longer enough to declare ‘I saw this’: the selfie suggests a drive to compete, assert oneself, struggle for attention, on social media platforms. It has become a strange form of self-publicising. The pressing need to prove to the world that you saw the Mona Lisa (for example) places a very high cultural value upon this painting. Selfies places a very high value on art but use this value to promote oneself in an arena of social competition.

Snapping is fine, it can be wonderful, it’s the not looking that bothers me.

I don’t believe that an art gallery is a sacred space to be treated like a place of worship – they are vibrant social spaces and should thrive that way. I am all up for yoga in galleries, children’s crafts, performances, live music, even weddings. Photography is not problematic in that it threatens the sanctity of the gallery.

I think it is problematic when it directly replaces the act of looking. I am wary of the snobbery surrounding the dismissal of photography, but from my own experience I know that lots of visitors do just snap and not look. Snapping is fine, it can be wonderful, it’s the not looking that bothers me. Not these are just mindless, uncultured people who don’t ‘get it’; the reasons for this behaviour are social, not individual, and they open up all sorts of questions. But the joy of art is its rawness and power in the lived moment, and it makes me very sad to see people let that pass them by, just because of their camera. If people were more aware of the implications and constructs of the digital eye in the 21st century, then I think the photography of art and the overall experience of it would become a more mindful and fulfilling experience.

Image Credit: “National_Gallery_of_Art_22” by US Department of State