Ten reasons why you shouldn’t take photos in museums

Posted on
Jan 20, 2010

Are you taking a photo?

Are you taking a photo inside a museum?


These words often play through my head whenever I’m inside of a gallery or a museum. Even if a museum allows photography (hopefully without a flash) it just doesn’t seem right to me. And if it doesn’t allow photography, and you still try and take a photo? Someone should slap your mother.

Of course, I’ve taken a few forbidden pictures in my time (never with flash, of course). But that was in the name of journalism. And by journalism, I mean blogging. But this isn’t about me.

Also, I might have taken a photo of this installation at the LACMA museum. But Katie put me up to it.

Also, I might have taken a photo of this installation at the LACMA museum. But Katie put me up to it.

It’s about those bastards who keep taking flash photos of art.

Once, years ago, I was at the MOMA in New York, and all hell had broken loose. It was a particularly crowded day, and everyone was taking photos. With flash photography. One girl literally got so close to Monet’s Water Lilies that I’m pretty sure her lens was touching the canvas. I nearly had a panic attack. It was a bad, bad thing. There were flashes going off all over the place, but the staff was too busy with I-don’t-know-what (drooling on their uniforms?) to notice. Seriously, if ever there was a need to bust-out some old school New York ‘tude, that was the time.

Then, as I passed by Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, some guy asked me to take a photo of him and his friend in front of it. I had a speech prepared just in case this was going to happen. Something along the lines of “How DARE you reduce priceless works of art to photo opportunities? Do you think that will somehow give you ownership over it? It won’t. It’s ART. It belongs to no one and everyone, you miserable poseur dilettante.”

Of course, what came out instead was something like, “Oh, I can’t … I’m terrible at taking photos.”

I am such a wimp. But I still stand behind my convictions. And in case you would like to as well, here’s 10 reasons why taking photos of priceless works of art makes you a d-bag:

  1. It’s tacky. Seeing people running around with their cameras as they stand directly in front of a painting is, frankly, annoying as all hell. There’s nothing that screams “tourist” more. Don’t be that guy. Or girl.
  2. It hurts the painting. No, really. We’re talking about works of art that are hundred of years old. They can’t stand that much exposure to blinding bursts of light, hundreds of times a day.
  3. It’s distracting. Even without a flash, the click of your camera is annoying enough. With a flash? It’s worse than having Gilbert Gottfriend soothe crack babies.
  4. It creates congestion. Museums are often crowded enough without you standing in front of exhibits for 20 minutes trying to adjust your aperture. Move along.
  5. You won’t actually see the work. Instead of reflecting and appreciating brush strokes, technique, perspective, lighting, and all that other stuff that gets art majors laid when they talk about it, you’re staring at a 2″ x 2″ display screen on the back of a camera. You might end up with a picture of the Mona Lisa, but you won’t remember having seen it for yourself.
  6. The photos you take will be pointless. Without a flash, it will be blurry. With a flash? You’ll get a glare, wash out the painting, and probably do permanent damage to the work.
  7. You’re stealing money from the museum. Arts organizations are suffering more than ever (yes, even despite the $20 you just shelled out for admission) and museum store sales help a lot. Taking a photo of a painting means you won’t buy a poster or a postcard – you’re essentially stealing from the museum, as well as leaving yourself an inferior image.
  8. Cameras turn museums into tourist traps, instead of places of reflection. If everyone was snapping photos all around him, do you think Cameron could have had his moment in front of Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grand Jatte?
  9. You’re setting a bad example for future generations. It’s hard enough to get kids to appreciate art. The fragility of a painting is easily lost on them. And if they don’t understand now that these things are delicate objects to be protected, they likely won’t when they are adults. Especially if they see you march through flashing your camera all over the place.
  10. You’re damaging artists’ claims to their intellectual property. Taking photos of someone else’s work creates some weird legal situations. It interferes with an artist’s (or an artist’s estate’s) claim on their intellectual property, which the museum is taking lengths to preserve (hence, no photos allowed). If it keeps up, we’ll be seeing more and more examples like these bastardizations of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (though The Simpsons one is pretty awesome).

Of course, I know there are a lot of folks who disagree with me – whole Flickr groups are dedicated to the topic. But frankly, I just don’t think that one grainy image is worth the risk of damage to priceless works of art. What are your thoughts? Is photo-taking in museums taboo? No big-deal? A slap-worthy offense? Do tell … in the comments section below.

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