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Galleries: When is it OK to flash?

“No flash! No flash!” In the Uffizi Gallery in Florence the gallery attendants are chanting “No flash!” at the tour groups. Now that everyone has a camera someone’s bound to have forgotten to turn off their flash.

Some people are filming their entire visit to the gallery, others are using the zoom as binoculars to look closer at the paintings. At a certain point the number of cameras in a gallery becomes a spectacle in itself and a distraction from the exhibition.

Photography isn’t allowed in the antique libraries in Dublin. And then there is Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) policy on photography which is strange: “Still photography for personal use is allowed. No flashes or tripods, please. No videos or photographs may be reproduced, distributed, sold or displayed on personal websites without our permission. Buy a postcard”.

I understand the conservation reasons for no flash photography — strong light will fade pigments. I understand the basics of copyright law of images and the reasons why copyright might apply to unique expressions of an idea. But I’m interested in the variety of gallery practices around the world and I notice that the policy on photography does vary across galleries.

A museum or galleries policy on photography is not simply about insurance, copyright, security and protection of the collection, it defines the purpose and use of the museum’s collection. The Frick Collection in New York allowed photography briefly in early 2014 but then reversed this policy worried about the damage that inattentive photographers focused on their camera screen might accidentally damage some of the collection.

Why do people want take photographs in an art gallery? I know why I want to: images for my blog. But it’s not easy to take good photographs of art,  and many artists and galleries would prefer not to have their art represented in bad photos so I am grateful that some galleries, like RMIT Gallery in Melbourne, will supply photographs free to bloggers. I go around with a light -weight digital camera strapped to my belt; it sure is different to hauling my old Soviet Zenit around.

Photography is part of everyday life now and people are increasingly trying to capture something of that life in the camera. With digital cameras there are few delays in processing and distributing; we can bore our friends in small doses over Facebook later that day.

For more on this subject Mark Sheerin explores some of the issues of photography and the variety of gallery policies in “Gallery Photo Policy Versus The Aura of the Artwork” in Hyperallegic.

3 responses to “Galleries: When is it OK to flash?

  1. The bigger issue is of people hogging access to viewing art so they can get their photo “just right”. No thought that there are probably 5000 pictures exactly the same as theirs already on the web, or high quality digital versions online produced by the galleries. “Here is a picture of me standing next to (insert famous painting here)” is a pain in the ass when trying to navigate any great gallery. The Louvre is probably the worst, where photographing the famous art works is seen as a contact sport – zero ambience anywhere in the gallery due to over eager noisy photographers.

    The flashes make it worse. Make this the policy – “Simple, polite unobtrusive photography is allowed and in fact encouraged. Flash photography is not allowed, and will see you ejected from the gallery. Thank you.”

  2. Fading issues are rarely an issue for works hung in galleries. The flash from a camera *is* bright, but the length of exposure so short that in the majority of cases you would have to have thousands of flash exposures a day to have any appreciable effect on cumulative fading rates. (Stephen Michalski from the Canadian Conservation Institute did the maths back in the 1990s – see Michalski suggests the original ban may have started from when flash equipment was more of a fire hazard, and, as Mark says above, copyright and ambience concerns are the more common reasons behind photography ban (sometimes conservation is used as an excuse).

    Heat can be a real issue from professional camera or film lights, though, causing distortion, softening etc. I haven’t heard any stories of camera-obsessed visitors bumping into art but this is a more probable and potentially severe event than fading from camera flashes.

    Btw I did have an enjoyable time at the Met a few years back playing “whose bottom?” (or other body part) by tweeting iPhone pictures of parts of paintings. Unfortunately the Met do not sell any such themed postcards.


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