How to Take Photos in a Museum
The ubiquity and quality of cameras today means that every travelers can take lots of photos. As more and more museums are now allowing photography*, there is the potential for crowding and distraction among visitors who are more interested in getting their shot than with enjoying the art. I want people to visit cultural destinations like archaeological sites, religious buildings, museums, and historic homes, but your camera should be used in a way that adds to and does not distract from your experience. If you want to take photos in a museums, it’s best to obey some general guidelines so that you and the other visitors have an enjoyable art experience.
#1 – If It’s Famous, Don’t Take a Picture of it
Everyone’s crowding around to see the Mona Lisa, the David, or Rembrandt’s self-portrait. It’s not because they want to see these pieces, it’s because they want to take a picture of the “famous” art. This is incredibly frustrating for anyone who actually wants to see the piece. It also creates a serious crowding problem as people jostle for the best camera position. Just don’t do it!
Think about it, what are you really going to get from the poorly lit cell phone photo of the “Venus de Milo”? Art is something to be experienced – that’s why you’re traveled all the way here and have chosen to spend a precious half day in Paris at the Louvre rather than strolling the boulevards. (Nothing against strolling; hopefully your Day 2 involves lots of boulevard strolling.) I’ve written about having a good museum experience before, but basically it comes down to looking around, finding what you like, and letting yourself be present with the art.
With all the great digital images of art available on the Google Art Project, Wikipedia, museum websites, and other sources, there is really no reason to take a picture of a well-known work of art. The picture you take will never be as good as the photographs available online. Needing to snap your own picture is purely selfish. More importantly, it cheats you out of your only chance to get a good look at the real thing in person.
Now if your habit is to take pictures to help you remember things, like a delicious new wine or a book recommendation, then just write down (or ok, take a picture of) the title of the artwork and the artist. When you get home, searching for this piece will reconnect you with your trip and will help you discover related works or similar artists in a way you could never do in the physical museum itself. I definitely do this when I find something I like!
#2 – It’s All About the Details
As much as I think you shouldn’t photograph works of art, I do believe in a couple very notable exception. Think of museum photography as a type of art photography. Viewers often see beauty or meaning in the wholeness of the work of art, so challenge yourself to look for beauty and meaning in the details and then use your own photography to share this discovery.
Vincent van Gogh is one of my favorite artists. I love the wild movement of his brushstrokes and his incredible use of bold complementary colors that seem to grapple with each other across the canvas. I could spend hours looking at catalogs of this work, but these photographs don’t capture the physically of his paintings.
Van Gogh slathered paint on his canvases at times creating thick ridges on the surface known as impasto. Standing in front of one of his paintings, I imagine Van Gogh working feverishly, picking up huge globs of paint from his palette, slashing across the canvas, and even mixing pools of paint directly on the surface. But I only imagine this when I can see the actual paint itself. So if I can, I like to photograph the beauty of Van Gogh’s technique by looking at the texture of his paintings. That’s how I take the experience of being in front of the painting home with me.
I’m often awed by craftsmanship and technique so I seek out these details when looking at a work of art, but maybe something else will strike you. Is there a figure in the corner who fascinates you? Is there a symmetry or shape that’s interesting? Does a portion of the painting hold up as its own as a cropped image?
If the photograph helps documents your experience or your discovery in front of the work of art, then it is worth taking the picture.
#3 – Context, or How to Hang a Manet
Curators put a lot of effort into selecting and arranging pieces, as well as designing the space in which to display art. Because a good museum environment enhances your experience, it’s easy to overlook the conscious selections made in preparing the museum. Sometimes a broad view of a gallery rather than of a single work of art can capture this impressive synergy.
Again, think art photography. While in #2 you were looking for insights in the small parts of a painting, now you are looking for themes and richer meaning from groups of art. Frame your photographs to show contrast and complementarity within the gallery.
Capture the frames, wall color, symmetry and lighting to better express your viewing experience.
I find that many museums are works of art in themselves so it makes sense to document and explore the the elegant architecture of the gallery space.
#4 – The Art of the Selfie
I will start by admitting that I cannot take selfies. I just end up looking surprised which makes no sense for a photo one takes of oneself. Despite my bewilderment and skepticism, there’s no escaping the selfie. There’s a growing Tumblr dedicated to Museum Selfies and even a proclaimed “Museum Selfie Day” (Jan 21, 2015), but it begs the question, why take a selfie in front of art?
Are you using the selfie to document that you were there? Art (and travel for that matter) is not a check-box list. Much like Rule #1, don’t take a picture of yourself in front of something just because it is famous. A selfie in front of the Mona Lisa or the Taj Mahal simply shows that you were there and doesn’t transmit any of the meaning or experience of being in those places. What did you think about the work of art? What did you experience in front of it? Without any context, a selfie just feels like you were standing in everyone’s way to take a picture of yourself. And as someone who has been shooed away from art for someone else’s selfie, that is not a fair use of museums.
Instead, think of a selfie as your way to react to, build off of, or respond to the work of art. Try something creative – this is a self-portrait after all! Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored Room” (2013) is an experiential piece in which visitor enter an seemingly vast space created entirely from mirrors and lights. I’ve seen self-portraits inside this piece that appear to contemplate the expanse of the universe or show the photographer realizing his or her uniqueness amid a sea of stars.
Kusama’s work is designed to dialogue with visitors which is why it leads to such amazing self-portraits. It’s harder to interact with 17th century panel paintings, but if you can figure how to, then that’s worth a selfie.
At the End of the Day…
Museum photography is about capturing the most beautiful, unique, and special elements of your visit. Find the pieces, details, and rooms that are meaningful to you. The points I made above should help you focus on experiencing the art and allowing others around you to have their own experience as well. Museum photography is the vehicle for bringing that experience home with you or for communicating the experience to others, it is not the experience in itself. So above all, enjoy being in museums with the art!
Let me know what you think and have fun finding your pictures!
(*Important caveat: these rules of course assume that you can take photographs. There are very good reasons why museums don’t allow photography, so check ahead of time.)