On taking selfies in the National Gallery

August 16 2014

Image of On taking selfies in the National Gallery

Picture: Guardian

Good piece in the Guardian by Zoe Williams on the National Gallery's photo policy:

[...] I have some good news for the purists: there was nobody taking selfies in the National Gallery on Thursday; nobody except me. It's possible that this memo hasn't got out yet, and not enough people know that it's allowed. But I think I can exclusively reveal the real reason: it is technically extremely difficult, but never quite difficult enough to distract you from the exquisite embarrassment.

People taking photos of art with their phones divide into two categories: thoughtful, discreet snappers of obscure tiny portraits of princesses, and everyone else taking pictures of Van Gogh. It seemed fitting to me that Van Gogh would be the go-to guy for an iPhone photo; he's the painter (I like to think) who would find the trend the most depressing. 


You can't take a selfie without going for the original selfie, Rembrandt's Self-Portrait at 63. The problem with the positioning of this painting is that Rembrandt comes out slightly better from the lighting, so I ended up looking older than 63. Also, this is one of the most venerated paintings in the gallery, even the nation. The disapproval in the room flooded towards me. I thought I heard someone hiss. It was like that bit at the end of Dangerous Liaisons when Madame de Thing is booed at the opera.


In short, there is nothing to fear, for either the art crowd or the custodians of the human spirit. The National Gallery will not be overrun by people taking selfies for the same reason it is not full of people in bikinis; we humans have a keen sense of humiliation, exposure, pride, vulnerability. That's what makes us worth painting in the first place.

Update - and here's the leading french art history blogger Didier Rykner of Tribune de l'Art saying that in two hours at the Louvre recently he was not bothered once by a photo taker. He applaudes the National's new policy.

Update II - but here's an editorial in The Guardian saying photos shouldn't be allowed in any art gallery:

it would in fact be simpler and better for both the pictures and the public if no photography was allowed at all. Looking at the art may be an old-fashioned priority, but it ought to be the essential one, all the same.

Typical Guardian preaching; it knows better, and must tell people how to behave and think?

Update III - anti-photoist Jon Sharples tweets this selection of Sunflower selfies:

As I've said before, I have no problem with (discretely taken) gallery selfies at all. Can anyone really object to people being this happy to be in front of a Van Gogh?

Update IV: the Grumpy Art Historian objects very much indeed, still, and agrees with the Guardian. Unlike Zoe Williams, he saw selfie-takers everywhere (he went today to report from the scene). He also saw a few flash takers, and reports that the guards aren't that interested in telling people not to use flash. This last point puzzles me, for if they leapt on the flash users with the same vigour as they used to leap on the photo takers (I saw many times loud shouting from the other side of a room) the practice might soon stop. But we maybe learning more here about a demoralised staff threatened with losing their jobs, as I've reported before, at least if the vigour with which they're criticising their employer's own rules and policies is anything to go by.

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