Monday, April 30, 2007

All I Got Is a Photograph

Every time I see your face,
It reminds me of the places we used to go.
But all I got is a photograph
And I realize you're not coming back anymore.

Photograph, by Richard Starkey (aka, Ringo Starr) and George Harrison

Victor Keegan, one of the Guardian’s art bloggers , asks UK galleries to “Snap to It” and allow patrons to photograph the works of art, just as some other countries’ galleries allow. I’m of a divided mind on this one.

On one hand, it’s nice to have a memento of your experience. I admit that my wife and I have photos of ourselves in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. In the background are scores of other people doing the same thing. The Mona Lisa endures more flash photography per day than a dozen supermodels thanks to the special protection surrounding it. The Mona Lisa is a monument of art, so standing in front of it like you would a historic building or the Grand Canyon is understandable and acceptable.

It’s acceptable, of course, if you take the time to look at the artwork, the building, or the Grand Canyon. As some of those commenting on Keegan’s post point out, allowing photography (sans flash, of course) encourages people to race through galleries with digital still cameras or video cameras welded to their faces. People try to replace the art experience with a reproduction of that experience. I knew that I may have that one opportunity in front of the Mona Lisa, so I took my time (or what time the surging crowd would allow) actually to look at the painting in the flesh and try to mentally appreciate it for the first time free of the shortcomings of reproduction. The Mona Lisa, as I’ve mentioned before, presents one of the most anticlimactic art experiences a hardcore art nerd can have, but that’s an appraisal one needs to make without looking through a viewfinder.

Unfortunately, the typical Mona Lisa “experience” resembles the photograph above: a crowded, blurry mess composed more of impressions than actual sensory data. It takes mental discipline and a true love of art to slow yourself down and avoid making the experience just another check mark on a list. All you’ll have is a photograph and you won’t be coming back any more. Listen to Ringo.

(Coincidentally, after I wrote this post, I saw the cover of the April 30, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, which pokes fun at this same phenomenon of photographing art. Harry Bliss’ “Paint by Pixels” shows a couple standing before a huge abstract expressionist painting yet mesmerized by the same painting displayed on the tiny screen of their digital camera.)

[BTW, the question of whether allowing photography will cut into postcard sales in museum shops is, to me, moot. As long as the postcards offer higher reproduction quality than your average digital print, people will buy. In my opinion, the real issue regarding shop profits and museums rests in the question of whether to charge admission. I fall wholeheartedly on the side of free admission, believing that the minimal loss in admission fees (in terms of the overall gross income of most museums) is more than offset by increased patron numbers and the subsequent visits to restaurants and shops. Swedish museums that moved to free admission and then back to paid admission have painfully found this out. Getting people in the door should be the highest priority. Increased access for families and people with limited income, thus opening up whole new vistas of culture to those who would otherwise may never think to enter a museum, is simply sweet icing on the cake.]

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