Wednesday 5 June 2013

Against Photography

Picture: Guardian
I think the National Gallery is right to prohibit photography.  Every museum should ban photography.  That seems to be a minority view today, but I think it's more important than ever to resist the intrusion of photography into art galleries.  The clamour in favour of photography is becoming increasingly insistent; many people assume it's obvious that we should be allowed to take pictures in museums.  But they are focusing their criticism on bogus arguments, and failing to address the more substantive harms.

First, let's dispense with the spurious arguments against photography.  The evidence that flash photography harms works of art is weak.  I lack the expertise to evaluate the research, but the consensus seems to be that paintings will be fine.  Another argument is that museums need to protect image rights, but I believe that use of images for private and academic purposes should be free.  We should also reject the daft idea that photography is a security risk, as if anyone with the wherewithal to steal from a museum won't be able surreptitiously to take a few secret snaps of air vents.  Let's get down to the real issues, which are about the effects photography has on the experience of viewing art.

People taking photographs in museums is distracting.  Even non-flash photography can be a distraction, with those annoying electronic shutter sounds.  But once photography is allowed, it's almost impossible to stop people using flash.  Some particularly barbarous galleries have given up, and now permit flash photography.  Flashes of bright light are inherently intrusive and prohibit more contemplative viewing.  Sometimes flash photography makes it impossible to see anything at all.  Maybe I'm especially sensitive, but I find that flash bulbs burn my eyes for several minutes.  I can't see anything except spots of light when flashes are going off all the time.  And it's not an exaggeration to say 'all the time', as any visitor to the Louvre can attest.

Once photography is established, and especially in the larger museums, it becomes the defining activity.  People line up to get the same shots, or to take pictures of themselves posing with the artwork.  At the Louvre I saw people line up to get pictures of themselves holding the hand of an ancient statue.  At the British Museum the greatest works of art are reduced to mere props that people lean against and sit on to get the best picture.  It's ironic that a recent article defending photography argued that guards are better able to protect art when they're not distracted by stopping people from taking pictures.  In practice, exactly the opposite seems true. National Gallery guards are generally quite alert and attentive, whereas at the British Museum they allow any manner of dangerous indignity.  The act of actually looking at pictures becomes frowned upon, because it gets in the way of people getting their photos.   

I do recognise that banning photography restricts the freedom of museum visitors, and I can see lots of good reasons for taking pictures (to illustrate this blog, for example).  I'm especially interested in how museums display their collections, and it's good to be able to get a record of how pictures are hung and framed.  That's a real and lamentable loss of utility.  But in my view it's a price worth paying; taking pictures is a secondary activity to looking at pictures.  It's sad to see most (really, I do mean most) visitors to the Louvre doing nothing other than taking pictures of famous paintings that they don't stop to look at.  They're taking signals from other visitors, and deciding that that's the thing you do in museums.  I've noticed people paying much more attention at the National Gallery, which probably has a similar visitor demographic.  Prohibiting photography is actually good for many visitors - it makes them look instead of snap.

That sounds horribly condescending, and utterly against the grain of conventional thinking about museums.  I know that many reasonable people will recoil from this argument.  But permitting photography in museums is a specious liberty.  In a free society, people should be able to determine the ends they wish to pursue;.  Banning photography in public spaces would be outrageous.  But museums are not fully public spaces.  They are, quite rightly, governed by rules to support their special purposes of collecting, preserving and displaying art.  Removing rules in museums and treating them as spaces where people may behave as they wish has not promoted liberty; it has demoted art.  

The point is more easily grasped in related arenas.  No one would seriously suggest that it's acceptable to chat on a mobile phone or take pictures with flash in a theatre or a concert hall, because those activities so obviously conflict with enjoying the performance.  Some philistines still try.  Pianist Krystian Zimerman recently interrupted a recital because he was so distracted by a member of the audience filming him on a mobile phone.  But some people find it elitist to suggest applying similar standards to museums, which are instead expected to accommodate themselves to whatever any patron desires.  That strikes me as demeaning.  It lowers our expectations of art and diminishes our enjoyment of museums.  


  1. I agree with your post, but this is slightly unrelated. Do you have an e-mail address that people can contact you on?

    1. Would be great to hear from you - only reason I haven't published email address is that I'm too technologically inept to work out how to set up an 'about' page on the blog!

  2. I hate photography because the photographers seem to be entitled to stand in front of short people like me.

  3. I am indifferent. I like being able to take photographs of works that I like. I respect the no flash rule and try to be unobtrusive. I would prefer that the museum offer professional photographs on their website that I may use, or perhaps fine lithographs for works that I would like to frame and hang at my home. I much prefer the art of a professional with proper lighting or a full color lithograph than my paltry efforts.

    Just my $0.02.


  4. Indeed - the National Gallery is a sanctuary that saves people from themselves on this point.

    I recently took a friend over from Italy round Tate Modern and the spectacle of some people photographing every painting, followed by its label, without really looking at either, was depressing.

    Why are people more inclined to photograph life than live it these days? Is nothing worth doing unless somebody else can be made envious of it with photographic evidence?

  5. Thanks for comment. I read a depressing article about Funeral Selfies recently. The Louvre is unbearable, and I agree that the NG is a welcome sanctuary.

  6. Don't hate photography. Not all photographers can do such things that a normal person would hate. Without photography, memorable moments would not be remembered in photos. top photography in the Philippines

  7. As an artist who exhibits fairly frequently, albeit in commercial settings, I find it amazing how many people who feel absolutely free to photograph your work. I've given up trying to stop them, since I suppose I'm the one displaying my work, but the prevailing attitude is that everything is free, available and consumable. Attempts by fellow artists to stop photography have been met with outright hostility. I would feel somewhat mollified I suppose, if they wanted to comment, or engage in dialogue about the work but attempts at conversation are rebuffed. As if I could trick them into buying a painting they didn't want. I wish. Asking for permission to photograph is an utterly foreign concept.

  8. yups , I hate photography because the photographers seem to be entitled to stand in front of short people like me.

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