Museum Photography

Touched by His Noodly Appendage
When I go to museums, I generally bring my camera. And I often use it. In fact, taking photos in the museum is a major part of my museum experience. Yet I hadn’t really thought about how that impacts my experience until I read an article in the New York Times about how most people are now viewing art through the viewfinders of their cameras.

The ubiquity of cameras in exhibitions can be dismaying, especially when read as proof that most art has become just another photo op for evidence of Kilroy-was-here passing through. More generously, the camera is a way of connecting, participating and collecting fleeting experiences.

From what I’ve seen, most people taking photos in museums spend a lot more time looking at the piece through the viewfinder than they would look at the piece in general. There’s a real connection toward showing exactly what’s caught their attention and not just taking an “I saw this” or “I was here” photo.*

*Granted, that I tend not to frequent museums with super-famous items in their collections (yay for the Bay Area not having any of these) means that the museumgoers I do see aren’t motivated by the tourist checklist. When I’m traveling, I definitely see more of the walk in, see/photo the famous item, walk out type of museumgoer.

I do my fair share of this type of photography.  I’ll see a piece, or something in a piece, and photograph it. Sometimes it’s so I can show it to people later. Other times it’s so I can study it more in my leisure time. Some people take notes of what they see and look them up later. I use my camera for the same purpose.
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What I find myself doing more often though is taking pictures of people interacting with the pieces. A large part of what I enjoy about visiting museums is seeing how other people react and I enjoy taking photos that show the works in context.* Postcard-perfect photos are boring.

*I contribute to and enjoy viewing the Flickr group Museum Watchers.

Sometimes the context is simply a sense of scale. Other times, the context involves what other pieces are nearby.
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Indian museum

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6 responses to “Museum Photography

  1. I tend to put my camera away when I’m actually looking at art for my own purposes. Partly because I find it more helpful to take notes, partly because I’ve had so many frustrating experiences with those SFMOMA blazers. But I always bring a camera, because even if I have zero intention of photographing the art itself, people reacting to/interacting with art can make for amazing subjects.

    • Yup. Some people make notes, others sketch, I use a camera. Recording your reaction to what you see is an expected part of the museum experience.

      Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about why I have no problems taking photos of random strangers in a museum but I don’t have the requisite mindset to do so on the street.

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