Picture this scenario. You are standing a few feet from a small square painting. It is a priceless da Vinci, titled Ginevra de Benci – a petite but stunning work that is the only of the artist’s in North America. You want to get closer, to observe Ginevra’s flawless porcelain skin that almost seems to glow – thanks to Leonardo’s expert technique – and to squint at her shiny curls rendered with exquisite detail.
But, alas, you cannot. A stocky tourist in glasses and an overlarge sunhat is standing next to you, clicking away on her digital camera. To avoid getting in her shot, you wait. And wait. And wait. Finally, she puts her camera down, and you can swoop in. After you’ve had a good look you notice that the tourist left, without even getting any closer or spending much time before the painting. This is a masterpiece, a brilliant, priceless painting by the most renowned of the old masters… and they were only there for the photo?
This is a real experience I had earlier this week at my beloved National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. And while this particular incident may seem trivial, it certainly is not the first time something like it has happened. In fact, I am willing to bet that anyone who has ever been to a gallery can relate.
The act of taking a photo of a work is not a crime. Even I can admit, sometimes it’s hard to resist snapping a shot on your phone, just so you can say, wow, I was in the presence of this awesome/famous work!
But here is my gripe:
In this day and age, just about everyone has a camera on their person at all times, and the amount of photo taking in a museum that I see people doing is almost silly. Especially those who jump before a work, take a few snaps, and go on their jolly way. This isn’t – and allow me to be frank – how you consume art.
Without attempting to sound pretentious: art is to be looked at, is it not? From up close. From afar. It is to be pondered. You can stand in front of a work for ten minutes, two minutes, or two hours – an artwork needs to wash over you. For you to see the image, the intent, the technique, and the drama.
Are you gonna get any of that if you take 50 photos of it, and move on?
Now, I am not saying you should not ever take a photo of a piece, but if you can’t resist the burning desire to, make it fast. Don’t – and this is probably the worst offence – stand there for several minutes trying to get the right shot. This causes anyone around you to be blocked from getting any closer to the work than you are. They’re just trying to be nice and not ruin your shot. Don’t take advantage of their kindness and stage a minutes-long photoshoot. ESPECIALLY if you are taking photos of someone else in front of the work.
Earlier in the year, I took a trip to New York City with my art class, in which we visited a number of small Chelsea galleries, some of which had some very kooky and fun postmodern pieces in them. But I was struck with how consumed some of my classmates were with getting pictures or Snapchats of themselves in front of artworks. The experience of looking and appreciating the art almost seemed to be of secondary importance to them. Now, isn’t that a little self-defeating and self-important?
Think on these words. This is a plea from an art lover and gallery frequenter – consider putting the phone or camera down when you’re in the museum. Don’t be that tourist at the da Vinci. Don’t be that person on a selfie parade from one room to the next. For your own sake and everyone else’s. I promise, your experience will be more fulfilling, even if you have less photographic proof.
(And if you do take a picture – PLEASE, no flash! It hurts the art!)
Words by Nana Gongadze