Photography to be allowed at the National Gallery? (ctd.)

August 11 2014

Image of Photography to be allowed at the National Gallery? (ctd.)

Picture: BG

Is it victory? The last major photography prohibitor has fallen, it seems. Following my revelation earlier that the NG was reconsidering its stance, a reader writes:

I've been in London for the past few days and made a stop at the National Gallery and just thought you should know that they are allowing visitors to take photographs! I'm not sure how I feel about this quite yet. Until today, I was also a proponent of letting people freely photograph the art but I have to say, a bit of my soul died each time someone photographed a piece (or even worse, took a selfie!) without actually looking at it with their own two eyes, just the lens of the camera. Who am I to judge how people experience and enjoy the art though…I guess.

Quite right. There seem to be two main objections to allowing photography in galleries. The first, and more understandable, is that people taking photos get in the way of those looking at the art. However, I can honestly say that I have never personally known this to be a problem. Yes, sometimes someone takes a snap in front of a picture I want to look at, but in such cases I'm no more inconvenienced than had I been waiting for them to simply finish looking at the picture, pre-photography, and move on. In other words, there will always be a crowd of people in front of famous pictures, whether they're taking a photo or not. And the great majority of photo-takers do adhere to the generally accepted rules of gallery life; be quiet, respect the art, etc.

The second reason I take greater objection to, and that is the belief that we need to somehow force people to 'look' at paintings in a way that is culturally acceptable to us. We must, goes the argument, make people stand in front of paintings for a minimum time period, in case they don't fully appreciate it. Usually this is a generational thing, and is blind to the fact that many younger people (whose average attention span, yesterday's Sunday Times tells me, is 7 seconds) consume art in a very different way to us oldies. For them, looking at a photo at leisure later on, and sharing it with friends, is just as rewarding. And it helps build audiences too. 

I will ask the NG press office whether this is all official now. 

Update - here's the National Gallery's statement:

The introduction of free Wi-Fi throughout the public areas of the National Gallery is one of a number of steps we are taking to improve the welcome we provide.

Wi-Fi enables our visitors to access additional information about the Collection and our exhibitions whilst actually here in the Gallery, and also to interact with us more via social media.  

As the use of Wi-Fi will significantly increase the use of tablets and mobile devices within the Gallery, it will become increasingly difficult for our Gallery Assistants to be able to distinguish between devices being used for engagement with the Collection, or those being used for photography.

It is for that reason we have decided to change our policy on photography within the main collection galleries and allow it by members of the public for personal, non-commercial purposes - provided that they respect the wishes of visitors and do not hinder the pleasure of others by obstructing their views of the paintings.  This is very much in line with policies in other UK museums and galleries.

The use of flash and tripods will be prohibited, as will photography and filming in temporary exhibitions.  

Commercial photography remains subject to existing arrangements.

Update - a lively response to this over on Twitter. The historian Ian Mortimer tweets:

I agree with you. Going around the Mauritshuis 2 days ago, my camera acted as a visual notebook of socio-historical detail.

For me, taking photos of the occasional detail of a painting is essential. And I suspect that for most people taking photos, and then looking at them in detail later, makes them look more closely at a painting than the sceptics fear.

Maggie Gray of the Apollo points me to this post, and says the Van Gogh museum is reconsidering its photo-allowing policy. Probably that's too crowded a museum to make it work. 

Naomi Russell says on Twitter:

Can only speak from my experience. As à visitor I find it very invasive to reflection to have phone shots.

Javier Pes of The Art Newspaper tweets:

If I had a pound for the times I've been told off in museums for trying to take a surreptitious snap...

Me too. 

Frenchy Butchic tweets:

I had a horrible time at the Louvre in July when tourists took selfies without looking at art.

There's that disdain that people aren't looking at art properly.

On the same theme, Sam Cornish of Abstract Critical says:

[...] for me more important is the culture of not looking that cameras promote.

Again, we must force people to look at art in a culturally acceptable way... But each to their own I say. And probably I look more closely at art than most people; photographing all or part of them is crucial to that. 

Leigh Clothier tweets:

That is good news and brings it line with many others who have changed their policy in last year.

Steve Bowbrick tweets:

Photography now allowed @NationalGallery. More interesting is free wifi throughout. Blurs the idea of gallery/space.

Meanwhile, the Grumpy Art Historian is bewildered by the whole business:

The last bastion of quiet contemplation is now to become selfie central, where noisy clicking smartphones and intense flashlights will prevail over any eccentrics who want actually to look at art. [...]

The NG used to be a haven where looking at pictures was prioritised. Now it will all be about taking your own pictures.

Well, of course it won't. And it's been a long time, in my experience, since the National Gallery was a place of quiet contemplation (at least after midday).

Much of the criticism seems to assume that galleries will now be bombarded with flash and, horror, 'selfies' (think about it; what's really wrong with people taking a photo of themselves in front of a painting they are inspired by?). But in dozens of gallery visits this year, I've not once been dazzled by a flash. In any case, most mobiles take far better photos without flash, and most people know this. In fact, hard as it may be to accept, the great majority of people really do abide by the rules in art galleries, and act discretely. And if some people don't, well, rather than tut tut and be driven to despair, we sometimes just have to remember that not everyone is as civilised as us. After all, these are public galleries, and the taxpayer who has shelled out to support them has a right (within reason) to enjoy them however they please.

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