Public Photography In Art Galleries

Two days – two BBC Radio 4 programmes. Today it’s Today – i.e. the flagship programme called Today. For the five minutes at the very end of the three hours this morning, there was a discussion about people taking photographs in art galleries between Brett Rogers, the Director of the Photographers Gallery, and Rachel Campbell-Johnson, Chief Art Critic of the Times.

BR: [At the Photographers Gallery] we have a fine balancing act between respecting the needs of the copyright holders and the conservation requirements of work, and also fulfilling our public remit in getting more people into museums, as, by allowing people to use their mobile phones to take images within our galleries, we are encouraging a deeper level of engagement, I believe. So the policy we have is, while we don’t allow flash or tripods to be used or any professional use within the gallery, we sanction the use of mobile phones for personal use only.

R C-J: I don’t think it will get more people in the gallery. It will drive people absolutely crazy having a line up of people using every painting or image as a photo opportunity and that will add to all the problems blockbusters bring which is when people complain about crowds. But the way to look at a work of art is not from a single fixed perspective which you take with a camera. The whole point of a painting or a sculpture is … in the case of a sculpture, you look at it in the round; in the case of a painting, you move inwards and outwards, you see how the brushwork works. The camera just takes it from a fixed point and you see it from one particular angle. You don’t see the work more deeply at all. You see it in a far more shallow way.


White Water Lilies – Claude Monet (1899)


Detail of White Water Lilies

(I took these photos in Moscow in February. They are here to illustrate that, in my opinion, it is possible to “move inwards and outwards” and “see how the brushwork works”.)

R C-J (continued): Quite apart from the fact that it seems to me an instant distancing of yourself from the work to lift up the camera. It means you don’t look at it. You just think I’ll file it away and look at it later – but you never do.

BR: Many institutions like the Reichsmuseum are putting high quality high resolution images on their websites to stop poor images being circulated on the internet. The National Portrait Gallery is also allowing a certain number of their images which are copyright cleared to have creative commons licences so that there are many imaginative responses recently which are addressing the problems Rachel is talking about.

But from my point of view, she has missed the main point which is that people come into galleries for a social experience these days as much as for an uplifting, emotional and spiritual experience. So that sharing their images of what they have experienced on their mobile phones is a way of creating a visual diary for them.


“We’ve seen Andy Warhol stuff at MoMA!”

R C-J: I don’t think a gallery is necessarily a social experience. Why does everything have to be brought down to the lowest common denominator? There are millions of places to go for a social experience, and why shouldn’t something be difficult and different and more complicated to come to terms with and why shouldn’t we be pushed and tested? It seems to me that this is reducing every thing to one particular experience when it could be a facet of a much richer experience even if it is more difficult to enjoy.


As I said in my About statement over a year ago, one of my concerns is losing the ephemera of art. Radio interviews and conversations are especially ephemeral. I have made a recording of this interview for my own purposes. Does anyone know how I can upload it for other people to hear?

I intend coming back to this subject as there are some interesting blogs and websites out there which discuss it.


About notes to the milkman

I'm a printmaker based in the North West of England, living in Bolton and printing at Hot Bed Press in Salford. Please visit my website
This entry was posted in Art, Art Gallery, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Public Photography In Art Galleries

  1. Red Hen says:

    If it were flash photograph,that would annoy me as a fellow viewer,but I’d really love to have a visual record of the paintings I’d viewed.I only ever focus on three or four each time I attend a permanent exhibition and would cherish my own record of the experience.People recording their trip on social media would lead to greater engagement with the galleries.

  2. anneb54 says:

    This post is most serendipitous, because today, for the first time, I took photos of an artist’s work. So thank you for posting the conversation. It has made me think. I kid myself when I think I want a reminder of her work. I know that I will not really look at it again, and often taking photos replaces actually looking. (I think this applies to scenery, the natural world, and so on. However I still take lots of photos!) I wanted these photos because I would like to write a blog about her work, and I had to make sure that I had the superb detail of her creations. I did ask the gallery if it was okay, and they were fine.

    • Nowadays I often take photos to illustrate these blog posts (though the ones above were not). I am often conscious of seeing the places we visit on holiday only though the viewfinder of my camera. And even when I’m admiring a scenic view, I’m thinking in terms of composition for the camera and asking myself ‘Is there a shot here?’

  3. I think that galleries should encourage people to DRAW the works they see, give them little sketchpads and a decent pencil when they go in. By drawing a great work of art we come closer to seeing it and understanding it. I always draw when I’m at galleries and I’ve noticed that I’m often the only, or the first, person to get out a sketchbook and draw.

  4. ms6282 says:

    Hi John

    You might be interested in this article I came across in 2009

    The key point that the author makes is that tourists visiting art galleries tend to concentrate on looking at a few well known works which they haven’t time to study in any detail, similar to one of the viewpoints in the interview.

    Although I can relate to the point being made, I would have to own up to be largely “guilty”. Some people no doubt do go “snap happy” but taking photos can help you to remember and study works in more detail, even if, sometimes it takes a while to get round to looking at them.

  5. Pingback: More About Photography In Galleries | notes to the milkman

  6. I recently visited the National Gallery in Washington DC and my purpose in going was to find some paintings by the Dutch masters of the 17th century. I read that an artist should have three heroes of the art world. One of own heroes is Rembrandt Van Rijn. The book I read tells that we ought not to copy that hero, but rather to meld what we admire about their style in with our own style. We figure out what it is we admire about their work and we try it out, mixed in with our own style. I went to get a close-up look at some Rembrandt paintings. I did use my cell phone camera to take photos of ones I like so that I can look at them as I paint. I’m especially interested in how Rembrandt painted the face with a lot of detail and light, but then blurred out the detail a bit on the rest of the portrait. I like that. I also wanted to study how much detail he used and how he gave the impression of detail without actually giving it. If I hadn’t been permitted to take the photos, I would still have found a way to get the information I want, but my pilgrimage to the museum was a chance to see the painting personally and to get awed by them as I experienced them. I memorize what I can of them at the moment. The cell phone photo just gives me a way to answer questions I forgot to consider or will think of later. Perhaps that purpose of cell phone photos can be a good one?

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s