Taking photos of art? Get people in the shot.

Posted on
Mar 5, 2012

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t think photos should be taken in museums. And I stand by that point, even though I’m a really huge hypocrite about the whole thing. I defend my actions by claiming that I have to take photos for the blog. If I couldn’t take pictures, I’d have to pepper my posts with crude recreations of the works I’d seen, rendered by my unsteady hand in Microsoft Paint.

This becomes problematic if I have to create anything beyond the canon of Joan Miro (who, for the record, was brilliant and game-changing, but it’s really easy to fabricate a suitable decoy of his genius in roughly three minutes).

Behold, Miro’s The Flight of the Dragonfly in Front of the Sun:

And my rendition of it, tentatively titled Catastrophic Ketchup Spill on Blue Carpet With Squiggle and Dot:

I am going to hell for this (and for all the other stuff I've done).

Clearly nothing is sacred to me.

There is, fortunately, a limit to my callousness. Because while I may run around museums taking the occasional photo (with my flash off, of course), I’ve never requested someone move out of the way so that I may capture the perfect shot.

And believe me, that actually happens. I’ve had people tap me on the shoulder and wordlessly wave their hand to the side, just so they could get a grainy, overexposed photo of Christina’s World for their very own.

I comfort myself with the knowledge that there is a special level of hell for people like that, and they’ll eventually spend an eternity roasting alongside folks who got into the express lane at the grocery store with way more than 10 items (barbarians, the lot of them).

What’s more, the people who force others out of their shots are actually missing out. Because, as fellow-travel blogger Gary noted a while back on the blog, it’s often far more interesting to take photos of museums visitors than of the exhibits themselves.

Because isn’t this why we create in the first place? So that our creations may be seen?

So if you must snap a picture of a great work of art, try to get some of your fellow museum-goers in the shot. When I do, it often means I end up taking photos of people taking photos, which I’m always fond of.

Or I find the juxtaposition between a piece and a spectator becomes art in and of itself. This gentleman wandered into nearly every shot I took in the Nereid gallery at the British Museum. I found the contrast of the robed statues and his khaki-clad frame to be kind of hilarious.

What if he were half naked and wearing a robe, and the statues looked like GAP mannequins?

There was something incredibly sweet about this couple walking up the stairs together.

And there’s no way I could communicate the size of this statue without the young men standing in front of it.

Seriously, its nipples were like the size of my palm.

Indeed, I think having a bit of humanity in the shot tends to make all those photos of great works of art even better.

Yup. Definitely.

Leave a Comment

  • I totally agree with you. Taking pictures with someone else in them makes them seems genuine also a bit funny, especially when they notice you and clench their jaw, trying to look cool.

    Also, $20!!!??? In London the museums are all free… but they do tend to try to herd us like sheep into the store.

  • I think you may be on to something here with the art recreation! I have never understood the need to photograph something thousands of other people have photographed. My husband always points things out to me that I should shoot when traveling – look, there’s the Lincoln Memorial – just to find me taking a picture of a fire hydrant with an out of service sign.

  • bambooska

    Best photos are always the ones you recreate the environment so we can best feel what you also felt at that moment.

  • so true! Though I am quite guilty of taking photos of my favorite pieces or of the plaques next to them so I can remember the name of the creation/artist.

    Also, I was just at the British Museum yesterday!! or was it the day before… time differences confuse me.

  • Hi! I’m not sure whether or not you accept ‘blog awards’, but wanted to let you know that I left you one on my blog 🙂 http://heyitschantelle.blogspot.com/2012/03/they-love-me-they-really-love-me.html

  • Paige

    YES!! I love that you referenced Firefly! Just when I think I’ve got your level of dork all figured out…FIREFLY

  • I think that as long as you don’t use flash in the museum who are you really hurting? At the Van Gogh museum I was almost assaulted by Dutch Police Men for taking two pictures. You would have thought I was trying to steal Van Gogh’s soul.

    • Everywhereist


  • Meg B

    Oh lordie, the people with more than ten items in their cart going through the Express Lane should be jumped when they get out in the parking lot!

  • I, for one, would love a blog dedicated to recreations of famous artwork done by the possibly criminally insane.

  • Man you make me laugh. As I am pretty self-centered, I haven’t visited in a while, which makes me feel shame. Especially when you go and make all the fancy smancy changes to the site. IT LOOKS GREAT!

    Anyhoodle, I like your defiling of Miro. MS Paint is a tool much like fire and the wheel.

  • Nik

    I just don’t understand why you bother taking pics of artwork when you can buy them all in the gift shop, professionally shot in the correct light, and in the case of some of the stuff in the Louvre, not the fake display version (conspiracy theorist!). If you actually cared about art (and not about being a nasty, pushy, loud-mouthed tourist) you would by the book or something.

    The only pics I took in the Louvre were ones of my husband and I imitatating the sculptures… I’m sure we’re probably on our way to hell too!

  • This is a good idea – I accidentally got people in some art photos and liked the results. Funny that you wrote about why people shouldn’t take photos in museums – I’m about to post an article about why I refuse to visit any museum that doesn’t allow photography, and I’ve been having a hard time finding any reasonable arguments from the opposite perspective. I’ll check out that post now!

  • Let’s see your best Mona Lisa pic;) Some lenses just aren’t wide enough to get the observers with the artwork. Yikes! Totally digging your computer artwork though.

  • TheOtherLisa

    Catastrophic Ketchup would be a great name for a band.

  • One of my favorite museum experiences was visiting the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. They don’t let you take photos inside because they feel it takes away from the immersion of the place. And honestly it was a really nice experience just being able to wander and enjoy it without being constantly assaulted by people taking photographs, or often in my case also being one of those people.

  • Molly

    You’re absolutely right — museum pictures are far more interesting with the spectators. I would also recommend taking photos of people recreating art. For example: this, this, and this.

    It’s absolutely one of my favorite picture-taking activities. I can’t help but laugh every time I see the Buckingham palace one.

  • I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and I just read this post at my desk at work and I laughed so hard that I almost choked on my fruit snacks. (How hard would it be to explain to the emergency room doctors that a grown woman was choking on fruit snacks?) It reminded me of when I went to some fashion designer museum (Christian LaCroix, I think) in France and got yelled at by a French security guard for trying to sneak a photo of a dress. A month later I was yelled at again… when I tried to sneak a photo of Anne Frank’s diary in Amsterdam. I stay away from museums now because I can’t control my need to take photographs, yet I manage to find a way to get unnecessarily annoyed when other people do it. Love it!

  • I am following your Blog quite a while now and I still love it. 😉
    Especially this post. Because I recently did exactly that – taking pictures of art with people in it. 😉
    If it is not ok to link, I am sorry. But perhpaps you like it…


    It’s a mixture of streetphotography and…portrait perhaps…

  • Kitty

    I hated the amount of people taking flash photos at the Louvre museum,and other fine arts museums…

    I took great non flash pics of awesome masterpieces at the Louvre with my DSLR but my husband’s pic of the herd of chinese tourists in awe while admiring the Venus de Milo is priceless!!! And it was taken with the cheapest point and shoot, and he doesn’t have a clue of basic photography principles

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