I started studying Art History in high school and enjoyed it so much, I continued to study it throughout university. I’ve always found it a great privilege to see artworks I have studied in real life, I also think it is incredibly important in order to fully appreciate and understand a work.
One of my favourite artworks I have studied is Botticelli’s Birth of Venus which is held at the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, Italy. Being one of the most infamous works the gallery holds, a large crowd often surrounds the work. The very first time I saw this painting, in July 2015, I had patiently waited to make my way to the very front of the crowd. I took a picture very quickly so that I could just stand and admire. Not a few seconds into my musing did a stranger lean their arm on my shoulder, push into me so that they were now in the centre, take a picture and walk off; leaving the masterpiece devoid of all admiration, and me slightly shell-shocked. What confused me the most though is that this stranger did not spend anytime looking at the art, she got her photo, and left.
This begs the question, is photography in galleries really necessary? If we are consumed with the thought of capturing the perfect image or selfie in front of an artwork, can we really appreciate the art itself? Does it have the potential to ruin the experience created by artists and galleries?
Nowadays, most galleries operate on a full photography policy (minus flash, and of course the dreaded selfie stick) for personal use. Notable exceptions include the Prado in Madrid who operate on a strict no photography rule, the Frick Collection in New York, the Soane Museum in London and the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, who all operate on highly restricted policies. In famed contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama’s recent tour of her show Infinity Mirrors, a strict 30-second selfie limit was put in place for the rooms you entered individually.
In contrast, other artists and galleries encourage the use of phones and photos to interact with their art. Ethiopian-born artist, Awol Erizku, the man behind Beyonce’s infamous pregnancy announcement photo, treats his Instagram as a gallery, making it ‘public’ only during certain hours of the day, thus acting in replacement of gallery opening hours. The Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Australia have developed an app that replaces the wall texts within their space, purposefully encouraging you to get out your phone.
There are of course many benefits to a full photography policy within a gallery, it allows memories to be recorded and it allows others who might not otherwise be able to view these works to see them. As important as these things are, photography within gallery spaces poses many problems. Firstly, it poses a danger to the art itself (think the selfie domino, an incident last year that saw a woman in a Los Angeles gallery destroy US$200,000 worth of art trying to take a selfie), it can encroach on other’s space and other’s enjoyment (think my opening anecdote).
Grumpy Art Historian, Michael Savage says that it means that people think inwardly instead of outwardly and no longer appreciate the artwork. He argues that it becomes more about us posing with the artwork and proving that we’ve seen it, instead of the artwork itself. In today’s fast-paced world, it seems to me that people are content with a quick art fix, taking a photo and viewing it through a screen rather than spending time with the art.
The need to capture these moments and show people you have been to galleries has become so profilic that spaces are being created to take the most ideal photo of yourself surrounded by art. The Museum of Ice Cream in San Francisco has been expertly curated to provide beautiful and fun backgrounds for your photos, these backdrops have been specifically created for Instagram. It took a large amount of scrolling on both their website and Instagram pages before I found any reference to ice cream through the sea of perfectly staged photos.
The Art in Island Gallery in the Philippines is full of 3D trick artworks where you can interact and become a part of the artwork. Arrows are placed on the floor to ensure you are in the perfect spot for your photo. As beautifully created as these spaces are, I find them a tad ridiculous, the fact that we live in a world where there is demand for art institutions to be built purely for photographic opportunities. In saying that, whilst researching this article, I was quite impressed by the quality and beauty of some of the images.
Local photographer, Jamie Howe, organised three photoshoots including one for himself, this year during Tauranga Art Gallery’s exhibition Light Touch.
I spoke to Jamie about his thoughts regarding the taking of photos and selfies within gallery spaces. He believes that even as art evolves, it pays to show the right etiquette in the right areas; stating that it’s better to view and appreciate a painting in real life as opposed to taking photos of it.
However, he also argues that Light Touch allowed for the opportunity to create more art, such as photography, and believes it’s this sort of interaction, particularly involving photography, that makes art all the more interesting, particularly for a younger generation.
I can’t be a hypocrite, is there a photo of me attending Light Touch immersed in Squidsoup’s hanging lights on my Instagram? Absolutely. I suppose it could also be argued that telling people how to view and apprecaite art is elitist and alienating the digital generation.
However, studying art history has given me a much greater appreciation for the amount of time and effort artists put into their craft. So, in conclusion, take your photos, but please, look and appreciate the art and not through your screen.
Ellie Smith is an Art History major who is a curatorial intern at Tauranga Art Gallery.