My Executive


    Oct 01, 2013

    Museums, embrace picture-taking visitors

    THESE days, many museum visitors arrive with smartphones and the assumption that they have an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of good photographs.

    Museum bans on picture-taking are practically unenforceable - and obsolete. Art museums in the United States typically permit visitors to take (non-flash) photos of works in a museum's permanent collection, but forbid pictures at temporary exhibitions.

    This prohibition is currently under review at many institutions, some of which have already dropped it.

    Indeed, there is a type of museum visitor today who stops in front of Rembrandts and Vermeers for only as long as it takes to snap a picture of them.

    Other visitors prefer taking photos of art-plus-people, blocking traffic in galleries as they step forward and back, trying to compose either "selfies" or tourist-style snaps in which entire families pose in front of old master paintings. This can be exasperating for other visitors, and make smartphones seem to be the enemy of art and beauty.

    Nonetheless, the vogue for digital photography is a constructive development that, for the most part, enhances our experience of art.

    First, there is the eye factor. A visitor who photographs Van Gogh's Starry Night echoes, however wanly or casually, the basic mission of visual art: to celebrate the act of looking.

    When you gaze through a lens, you are likely to consider the world more deeply. You frame space and take note of composition, the curve of a line, the play of light and shadow. As photographer Dorothea Lange noted, "The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera."

    For art-history students, iPhone photographs are an earnest reference aid, a crystalline substitute for hard-to-decipher notes.

    For everyone else, digital photos work in much the same way as art postcards did in their heyday a half-century ago, when museum gift shops devoted more display space to them.

    Astoundingly, there is still a handful of museums that prohibit photography altogether. The Frick Collection, for example, seems to take perverse pleasure in its old-world formality; it does not permit children under the age of 10 on the grounds either.

    The Frick's camera policy, like those elsewhere, is now under review.

    Most other museums permit photography at least in the permanent exhibition galleries, but ban picture-taking at temporary shows to accommodate and appease lenders.

    Private collectors who lend museums their paintings like reassurance. They don't want thousands of strangers to photograph their work of art, post it on Facebook or add a humorous moustache to it.

    We are at the tipping point where art museums are poised to become copying centres whose every single work of art can be reproduced in digital form a million times every day.

    I say hooray. When we photograph, e-mail, tweet and Instagram paintings, we capitalise on technological innovation to expand familiarity with an ancient form. We increase visual literacy too.

    Much can be gained. Nothing is lost. A photo of a painting can no more destroy a masterpiece than it can create one.

    The writer is the art critic at WNYC and author of the forthcoming book, American Mirror: The Life And Art Of Norman Rockwell. This commentary first appeared in The New York Times.