They walk through the museum like hunters, like bird-watchers, on the alert for their next sighting, their next capture. They hold their cellphones, their cameras slightly in front of them, curled against their chests or under their chins, poised for the next shot. Then it comes: the sighting, the brief flash of recognition, the catch. Zap. The flash bounces off the layers of paint and varnish and the gilt of the picture frames. It’s a one-two punch; catch the image, then bend, point down and capture the label beneath the picture. In the bag. They move on with a palpable sense of achievement. Another one crossed off the list.
Who are they? It seems they’re most of us.
Sit in a room at the National Gallery and watch the people watching the art. You’ll be treated to a silent serenade of flashes and the quiet clicks of cameras, with, now and then, the gentle hum of a lens focusing. Nearly everyone looks by photographing, the camera a filter between them and the image before them. A museum offers the chance to see works of art in the flesh, without intermediary; for many people, the response to this is to get the artwork into the form of an image as fast as possible. How do we look? We take a picture.
There’s a lot of moaning these days about the ways that people are spending their time plugged into their phones rather than interacting with one another. Photographs are linked on Facebook and other sites (catch the irony?) of people texting not talking over dinner, photographing their own weddings before kissing each other, and otherwise documenting moments that their phones are preventing from actually taking place.
But I’m not going to roll my eyes about people taking pictures in museums. Watching the people photographing art in the National Gallery, I ended up feeling not censorious but affectionate. Some of them, yes, moved through automatically, pointing and clicking. Some gave an excited gasp, or twitch, when they saw a particular work and quickly moved to bag it. Some looked and walked away and came back a few minutes later to photograph, having figured out which images they particularly wanted to preserve. It’s easy to be prescriptive about how people should look at art, and mock those who are doing it wrong, but the impulse at work here is more generous, and more widespread. Many of us, in museums, react with something between the greedy acquisitiveness of a collector and the eagerness of a child faced with a box of chocolates. We see, we want to have, we know there’s too much here to be had at one sitting, and we process it as best we can.
There’s nothing wrong with encountering a work of art and wanting to possess it. For centuries, that’s been the hallmark of the connoisseur. Seeing art that moves you awakens the lover’s sense of Mine: No one else sees, understands, experiences this work the way I do. The covetous collector, jealously guarding his or her treasures, is a figure of archetype, and anyone who collects anything understands that ardor, and the sated contentment of ownership. I, sometimes, encountering a poem or piece of music for the first time, need to memorize it right away so I can carry it with me and sip at what it offers over time. And when I was young and first encountering the great museums of the world, I was the kind of visitor who bought stacks of postcards of the paintings I’d seen so I would have some relic of, say, a Holbein portrait that I might not have a chance to see again. It seems only natural, really, to gather up as many of these relics as you can.
But why photograph them? There are many ways to get reproductions of these works — on postcards, posters, calendars, or from the National Gallery’s Web site, which offers 29,000 publication-quality images you can download free of charge. Even a postcard will probably give you a better-quality image than anything you’re going to get on your camera, whose results are often a pale reflection of the thing that moved you. (“I wish my camera was a different camera,” said one woman wistfully in the National Gallery to her companion. “It’s not working right.”)
Amateur photography reduces the work of art; more than that — and here’s why we’re not supposed to approve of it — it objectifies it. Monet’s “Woman With a Parasol” becomes the equivalent of a celebrity captured in a cellphone snapshot at the airport. Anyone who has been to the Louvre in Paris can hardly forget the crowds in front of the Mona Lisa, their camera flashes reflecting off the protective glass, the painting itself almost invisible. If experiencing great art is like having a conversation (the greatest masterpieces, like the best friends, never run out of things to say) the flash, the camera, the “gotcha” shuts the process down. The image is no longer a partner in a dialogue but a decoration on your coffee mug. This process has itself become a subject for artists, at the very least since pop art emerged in the 1960s. Think of Warhol’s silkscreens of the Mona Lisa, or Lichtenstein’s renderings of Monet’s haystacks in fields of benday dots.
All true. And yet, on some level, I embrace the picture-takers. Their actual pictures aren’t really the point. What you document, when you photograph a painting, or a view, or a person, is not the subject alone, but you looking at the subject; and this is as true of an amateur snapshot of Renoir’s “A Girl With a Watering Can” as it is of your house, your dog, your child. Yes, the museum’s official image is “better.” The colors look different in your snapshot; there’s a glare on the canvas; the rectangle of the frame comes out in the picture like a trapezoid, because there were so many people in the room and you had to stand at an angle. But that proves you were in the room with the painting to begin with. Our photos assert our own presence in the world around us, bearing witness to what we’ve done and where we’ve been. Like the snapshot of the celebrity in the airport, these images have far more meaning to you than the best professional photo, and almost none to anybody else.
A museum is an anachronistic temple to art. It consists of large quiet spaces in which to contemplate masterpieces. Few of us actually walk in with the meditative mind-set the experience seems to call for. We’re tourists, stopping at the National Gallery as the fourth of five Washington “sights” on our day’s itinerary; we’re in town for a conference, carving out an hour to see the art; we’re sneaking out of our office, feeling like we’re playing hooky because this kind of leisure activity feels vaguely decadent, even when we’re writing about it. Then we find ourselves in front of a painting and try to change gears, to tap into ways of thinking and looking and experiencing that may not have much to do with the other parts of our increasingly busy days, engaging in a fundamentally intimate activity, and one in which we’re not always too sure of ourselves (what am I supposed to be getting out of this painting, anyway?), in public, without even the cover of darkness that protects us in other places — concert halls and theaters and cinemas — where we experience art in crowds. The camera may be the equivalent of a glass of wine in your hand at a party, removing the anxiety about what you’re supposed to do.
What is the easiest way to show, in public, that you’re looking at something? Photograph it. You can process what you saw later, perhaps in the company of a guidebook that reaffirms what was most important on a visit during which you felt you were only half-equipped to make the decision for yourself.
But with the picture in your camera, you’ve proved it. You’ve owned it. You’ve seen something, and chosen what to see, and you can show it to other people, and put it up on your blog, or on Flickr, or somewhere else where other people may or may not encounter it. And rather than saying that it cheapens the image to be thus circulated, we should celebrate the sense of participation and excitement that the art may be inspiring in those people who looked at an artwork, and smiled at it, and took a picture. Because while the snapshot they take, the reproduction, closes the door on the dialogue between the viewer and the work of art, the act of photographing may, in some cases, open it.
I looked for a long time at the paintings in the National Gallery, and at the people looking at them. Then I got up and took two pictures on my cellphone: Renoir’s “A Girl With a Watering Can,” which used to be ubiquitous but seemed to interest relatively few museum-goers the day I was watching, and Monet’s “Woman With a Parasol,” of which I once bought a postcard after a museum visit, years ago. I downloaded these two images from the National Gallery’s Web site when I got home, and of course the National Gallery’s images are better. But the colors in the ones I took are more saturated, and when I look at them I see more easily some of the details I was focusing on in the museum, while the official reproductions force me to start a new dialogue from scratch. Also: My pictures are on my cellphone, in my pocket, in between two snapshots of my son. And though I took them partly as an ironic gesture, and partly as an experiment for work, I haven’t deleted them. When I flip through my photos I sometimes zoom in to see the butterfly-dance of light on the back of Madame Monet’s dress, or the elusive shadow at the lower right of the picture, which hardly shows up in the official reproduction. I’m still looking at them. And they’re mine.