The Times reported that flash was being used about every ten minutes in front of the Arnolfini Portrait. In the Van Gogh room this afternoon it was about ten times each minute. It was easy to get the picture above, despite the flash being really brief, because this woman was using flash for all of her pictures. The guards occasionally shouted 'no flash', but it's impossible to tell who is actually using flash so it's ineffectual and they mostly don't bother.
Ironically the NG justified allowing photography because the guards couldn't tell when people were taking pictures and when they were just using mobile devices. The guards rightly denied that was a problem. But it really is impossible to stop flash once photography is allowed. Once the picture has been taken, it's just too late. I actually got another picture of Sunflowers illuminated by flash, purely by chance. I wonder how many people's photographs have been ruined by another person's flash.
Poor Sunflowers is suffering most from photography. I asked a guard about his experience since photos have been allowed, and he lamented the routine use of flash and said "Anyone who loves art and wants to see it properly hasn't got a hope."
From behind you see a phalanx of little illuminated versions of the painting you want to see, a bright visual distraction from the original. A lot more people that I'd expected were using iPads, which create a huge visual distraction blocking the pictures. Dozens of people line up. Front rank shoots, then falls behind for the next rank to take their pictures. Sometimes people step back to allow some one else to take a photo posing with the painting. There is a tacit understanding that people will move aside for that, then draw back in when the picture is taken.
Of course the entire gallery wasn't like this. There are still oases of calm. But popular galleries and popular pictures are off limits to a much greater extent than before, when it was merely pressure of crowds. Before it was understood that people would want to spend different amounts of time with a picture, so when you got to the front you could spend some time looking. Already now there is a strong social norm that you move on after taking a picture.
I saw this most clearly, and most sadly, in front of the Arnolfini Portrait. A man on his own got to the front to get a good look. He was leaning forward and looking quite closely. But all around him were people who wanted to take pictures. None of them were behaving at all unreasonably. No one pushed or jostled. No one said anything, or tutted. But he clearly felt the pressure to move on, looking around anxiously at people who wanted him to get a move on. He left quite quickly, and went up to the guard to ask when they started allowing photographs.
In the Botticelli room, one person briefly lent on a cassone to have her picture taken, but was fortunately told to move by the photographer. Another person was getting ready to lean on the same cassone to steady her shot, but saw the guard and thought better of it. As the guard has to cover two rooms, it was 50/50 whether she'd have been seen.
And in front of the Leonardo there's a line of photographers blocking the view of the people sat down trying to look.
Part of the problem is simply pressure of numbers, and there's no easy answer to over-crowding. But I've often been in the National Gallery when it's dreadfully crowded. Today was still a much worse experience. The prevalence of photography really does alter the experience of the gallery. Everyone recognises that; one the arguments of the proponents is that it makes people more engaged and interested. I think that's utter hokum. Of course some people who take pictures are highly engaged. But the bored tourist who takes a few snaps and then leaves isn't paying more attention because he has a camera. I saw the opposite; people using the camera as a prop so they had an activity to keep themselves busy in an unfamiliar environment. They were sticking to something comfortable and familiar rather than engaging in something new. And they're making it much harder to do anything except take pictures, because it requires real force of will to interrupt the lines of people waiting to take their photographs.
Is that elitist? I don't think so. I think the elitist response is the one that patronises people by pretending that a second-rate, disengaged experience is the real thing. The democratic response is to believe that anyone can come to appreciate great art. And it's easier to start that process if you leave the camera at home.