Why Can’t I Photograph Art?

           Have you ever heard something that didn’t sound right, something that just seemed wrong, yet you were never able to point out exactly what was wrong with it? I’ve had that feeling many times, and every time I think I’ve got it figured out, another idea emerges to counter my previous understanding.
           For years, one question kept popping up in my mind, and I couldn’t find a good answer for it. That question was: Why can’t I photograph art?
           Why do some museums, galleries and artists object to having their artwork photographed?
Part of me always instinctively shied away from photographing photographs, something about that just felt wrong to me; I’d sketch those out.
           But paintings? Sculptures?
           What’s wrong with taking pictures of those art forms?

           I remember one particular high school field trip where the K-1000 around my neck must have attracted the attention of the guards. Every time I attempted to snap a photo, I was ordered to stop.
           No photography.
           “But why not?” Was the question floating through my head, yet I dared not speak it aloud. I didn’t want to push any buttons. I was a just stupid teenager on a school trip, and they were in a position of authority. I kept my mouth shut, and I waited for them to wander off out of sight before quickly releasing the shutter and moving on.
           I was a kid from a small town up north, and this was my big trip to New York; a once-in-a-teenage-lifetime opportunity for me. I wasn’t going to pass up on my chance to document the works of the great Modern masters. I had ideas to steal.

           After that trip, the issue of photographing art always stuck with me.

           I must point out that I did not have a flash attached to my camera. Although I was still very young during this trip, I was well-aware of the potential harm a flash can inflict on a piece of art.
           Light can damage certain pigments; that’s why the lighting in a museum is so carefully controlled. A camera’s flash is a very intense burst of light. On its own, there is little harm. It’s just a quick flash, but it is important to remember just how many people visit museums, and how many of those people would want to take pictures, and how many of those would use a flash. Over time, those flashes add up, and there is a serious potential for damage.
           On top of damaging the artworks, some people, myself included, just find flashes annoying. I like to enjoy art, I want to get lost in an artwork, lost in the thoughts that it inspires. I find that a flash quickly pulls me out of that state of mind and ruins the experience for me.
           If you must to take pictures in low light situations, get a fast lens, use a high ISO, and shoot just as you finish exhaling. That should minimize camera shake, glare will be less of an issue, and the lighting and colours will be far more interesting than what you would get with a flash. Another perk of shooting without a flash: the guards wont rush in and ask you to leave the premises. In short, don’t use a flash in a museum.

           The question I kept asking myself was, “what is the difference between a photograph, and an experience.”
           When I look at a painting, photons bounce off the art, enter my retina, and are recorded to neurons, forming a memory. When I take a picture of a painting, those same photons enter my lens, and are recorded to a section of film, forming a negative.
           What’s the difference?
           What has been stolen from the painting in the case of the photograph that is not stolen in the case of a glance and a memory?
           Why is there a difference between storing something to memory, and storing it on film?

           They rebellious cynical teenager in me could only come to the conclusion that this photography ban is the fault of the museum gift shop. Every picture I take is a lost postcard sale for them.
That idea made sense, except for the part where it didn’t.
           I’ll start with the obvious: If I want a great reproduction of an artwork, I would imagine that there is going to be a difference in quality between an experienced professional with top-notch gear shooting under ideal lighting conditions, and some high school kid on a field trip with a Pentax K-1000 that he picked up at a pawn shop. I’m really not in much of a position to compete with the existing photos the pros have taken.
           The professionally produced photographs that appeared on the postcards were also printed in magazines and art books, both of which I either had access to back home in the school library, or I actually owned myself. I wasn’t interested in those paintings, I’d already seen them. I was interested in the lesser-known artworks, the ones that weren’t in books, magazines and postcards. I was documenting the hard to find stuff.
           Had they given me an option to buy postcards or books with these works in them, I probably would have, but that option was unavailable, and I needed a visual record of what I had seen. There were no prints of these images for me to buy.
           No, the museum gift shop was not a sensible reason for this photography ban. I was back to square one: Why is there this nonsensical distinction between looking and shooting?

Published by

Kyle Clements

Kyle Clements is a Toronto-based artist and nerd. During his thesis at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Kyle began working on his Urban Landscapes series, a body of work that aims to capture the energy and excitement of life in the fast-paced urban environment. After graduating from OCAD in 2006, Kyle spent a year living in Asia to gather source material and experience in a different kind or urban environment. His work is vibrant and colourful. Whether painting the harsh Northern landscape, or capturing the overwhelming buzz of life in the city, his acrylic paintings hover between representation and abstraction.

17 thoughts on “Why Can’t I Photograph Art?”

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