Thursday, March 24, 2011

Photographing life

Last week we spent most of an afternoon at MoMA. It was midday and midweek on a sunny day, so the crowds were manageable, but there was one inconvenience: people standing in front of the art taking photographs.

I'd seen a certain amount of this in recent years, but never thought that much about it. Some people, I supposed, just didn't want to pay for the postcard in the gift shop--and others might be actual artists who wanted a digital image so they could blow it up on their home computer and scrutinize the brushwork or whatever. But at MoMA there was an epidemic of photo-taking, and as best I could tell, most of the visitors were not taking photos of just a few favorite works, nor were they trying to prolong their pleasurable experience in the museum. No. They were going from painting to painting, taking photo after photo (often two in succession: first of the painting and then of the text on the wall beside it), spending no more than 10 seconds looking at each painting with their unaided eye.

This baffles me. I don't have an especially sophisticated critical vocabulary for talking about the visual arts, but even someone with no training can experience art--and that experience is why I go to museums and exhibitions: to see differently and to feel differently. There's a reason that I always visit a couple of paintings at the INRU art gallery when I'm in town: what affects me can't be reproduced photographically. I have to sit quietly in front of them, and feel whatever it is that they make me feel.

I've never taken photos of museum art, but these days I take a lot fewer photos, period. Facebook has made me conscious of the degree to which my own photo-taking is and always was an act of artificial self-construction. At some point when I was 23 or 24, Lulu and I went out on the town with a couple of friends and took a disposable camera with us. We took shots on the street, in the bar, in another bar, in the taxicab. "Damn!" Lulu said, looking at the photoset later. "We look amazing! This is so much more fabulous than our actual life."

For years after that I took a camera to every social event and on every weekend trip. And there my friends and I are, perpetually: over brunch, over dinner, over drinks, at weddings and houseparties and barbecues, striking antic poses and smiling big, happy, open-mouthed smiles.

But these days, taking photos feels increasingly like a duty: I must preserve this memory! I must get a great shot and then crop it just so! I must post pictures of my trip because friends and family will want to see them! When we arrived at our hotel last week, I had a moment of regret that I hadn't brought my camera, before realizing: dude. I lived in this city for six years. What would I photograph?

My friends, obviously, and me and my fiancé being fabulous, and great weather, and maybe a couple of places I hadn't been before. But, eh. I'd rather have the experience.

10 comments:

squadratomagico said...

What I hate is people who actually *film* art in a crowded museum -- I've seen people with video cameras slowly panning over the canvas and the accompanying text, and taking considerable time to do so. I have a lot of trouble with the concept that someone ought to be able to whip out their video camera and suddenly "own" all the space between the lens and the canvas for however long they wish to take -- especially since cameras usually have to stay much farther back than the human eye in order to get the whole artwork. I've seen filmers assume they can stand 4 feet back, and no one should walk in front of them for ten minutes or so.

I usually will wait for a short while, but if they show no indications of moving on, I'll walk in front of them and examine the painting from the appropriate *live* viewing distance of 18" or so. And yes, I get a lot of dirty looks.

Flavia said...

Squadrato: I've seen that too! It's a problem with still cameras, too--and everyone tries obediently to stay out of the way, etc., as if the cameraperson has a greater right to be there than they.

It's rude and peremptory, and contrary to the basically democratic spirit of a museum.

ntbw said...

Since I was an undergrad, I made a deliberate choice NOT to photograph any vacations, parties, etc. I knew if something was memorable enough to be, well, memorable, I would in fact remember it, so I wanted to live it rather than taking a picture of it. It helps, I suppose, that I have an extremely visual memory and a very strong attachment to places.

Sisyphus said...

What??? Get out there and get those pictures of you and your fiancee being fabulous and get them on facebook, stat! I told you you are here to entertain me. :)

And I agree that taking pictures of art is pointless even if taking pictures in general is not, but, there was an "art history prank" if you could call it that, floating around on facebook, where a guy who resembled King Phillip stood in costume in front of the Goya portrait and signed autographs, while being introduced by a guide. Now watching people take their pictures with *him* in front of the painting (some of them not seeming to get it) was awesome!

Sisyphus said...

Ooh, I found it!

http://improveverywhere.com/2011/03/06/king-philip-iv/

Flavia said...

Sisyphus: That is SO AWESOME. Love Improv Everywhere, but hadn't seen/heard about that one. Thank you!

NTBW: I have a strong visual memory, too. I really do love my photographs (and worry sometimes that they're substituting for actual memories)--but lots of my most visual memories don't have photographs associated with them.

Jeff said...

Flavia: I'm with you on this, and what makes it especially odd is that MoMA's web site offers images of (I just checked) 34,790 works by 6,323 artists, so it's not like museum visitors can't later revisit their favorites online. I can see taking a snapshot of a rare piece in a smaller museum that doesn't have a generous assortment of postcards for sale, but jeez, a few weeks ago at the Princeton Art Museum I saw people taking pictures of Monet's "Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge," which is, of course, almost never found in the public eye...except, of course, when reproductions of it pop up at every dorm-room poster sale in North America...

Flavia said...

Jeff: heh. I hated Monet--really, really hated him--in high school. It wasn't until I went to the National Gallery and saw the real stuff that I realized there was a reason for the ubiquity of those bad reproductions: the originals are kinda great!

Came as rather a shock, actually.

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anumma.com said...

I remember making the choice not to have our wedding filmed professionally. As it happened, one family took a lot of film (they had young daughters there, and we didn't in any way object; we just weren't worked up to have film).

For a few years, I chose not to watch the movie they made. I had all my own memories. When I eventually did watch their movie, it was odd: it was like someone else's wedding in the same location, with many of the same people. It was nice to be reminded of a number of particulars, but in almost no way did it reflect my experience. To this day, my memories of their movie and of my experience are in completely separate mental "containers."