Why take photos in museums?

Last week I finally managed to visit Copenhagen for the first time. I didn’t have much time to experience the city – though I really liked what I saw of it – because I only had two days and was determined to squeeze in as much museum time as possible. The plan was to visit the Ny Carslberg Glytpotek (how many times have I seen that name in a picture credit below a photo of an ancient statue?), the National Museum of Denmark and the Thorvaldsen Museum. This was a lot to do in so short a visit and by the second afternoon I was feeling a bit museum fatigued as I drifted through the National Museum’s medieval galleries without the patience to read any of the labels. But I saw a great deal and found plenty of things that gave me food for thought (which is always good). One of the only disappointments is that I’d really been looking forward to seeing the famous statue of Demosthenes in the Glyptotek but could only see it from a distance because the room was closed for repainting. At least it didn’t yet have a plastic bag over it!

The statue of Demosthenes in the Glyptotek

As I always do when I visit museums with ancient sculpture I left with an enormous number of photos on the memory card of my camera – well over 400. With my last blog post I failed miserably– as I usually do – to keep things brief (I’m always reminded of whoever it was that said “I apologies for sending you a long letter. I didn’t have time to write you a short one”. Who was that?) So I’ve promised myself to now write a series of short posts with some thoughts about some of the things I photographed, partly to do something with those ideas while they’re still fresh in my mind, partly I suppose to justify taking so many photos.

I suppose there are three main reasons why I take so many photos. The first is to remind me of things I’ve seen that I find interesting. And since so many statues and other objects display features that in some way depart from the norm, prompt comparisons with other things I’ve seen elsewhere or make me think of questions about ancient society that I realise I’ve never given much thought – that means that I end up taking an awful lot of photos. The other reason is that I like having a big catalogue of images that I can draw on for my teaching so I’m not dependent on using the standard examples that are readily available on the internet. The third reason, in the case of statues, is that the medium itself invites taking large number of pictures because of the infinite angles and perspectives from which sculpture in the round can be viewed. Taking multiple photos, even of well known pieces, means getting away from the standard full-frontal view typically reproduced in text books (an idea that I know generated a lot of interest recently on Twitter with the #reversenotobverse hashtag started by Sarah Bond) and, I feel at least, can help to get a sense of how ancient viewers might have experienced these objects.

Going around taking all these photos I was reminded of my last really intensive museum trip when I visited Italy two years ago and how then I’d found myself getting a little bit irritated and rather perplexed by the extent to which other people were taking photos and by the types of photos they were taking.

Firstly there were all the people posing for other people to take their photos or taking selfies beside all the most famous works of art. I will never forget the mother and daughter I saw going around the Capitoline Museum seemingly taking it in turns to compete to strike the most Vogue-like pose in front of each and every statue, not reading a single label, not even looking at the sculpture itself. I’ve never posted a selfie to social media and I’ve only ever taken a handful and then as a joke but I’ve got absolutely nothing against people wanting mementos of seeing famous works of art to show their friends and family. I certainly am not a fan of the Greek policy of not allowing photos of people next to museum objects because it is seen as a sign of ‘disrespecting the antiquities’. What I just don’t understand however is taking a photo of yourself posing beside something that you haven’t even bothered to look at.

Two occasions have made a lasting impression on me in that respect – the first in Naples, the second in the National Gallery in London when I saw people march into a room, snap a photo of a friend in front of the Alexander Mosaic and Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks and then march straight out again barely even glancing at the works in question. Now to be fair I might have been jumping to conclusions. These people might have spent hours of their lives standing entranced before these masterpieces and simply made a quick return visit because they’d forgotten to get a photo before. My suspicion, however, is that this is simply a case that they’d read in the guidebook that these were the must-see works of art and it was just a case of getting proof of been there, done that.

Caravaggio’s ‘John the Baptist’ (Musei Capitolini, Rome) – Source Wikipedia

An occasion that I found even more bizarre – and a good deal more frustrating – occurred in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. I had read in my own guidebook that one of the most famous baroque paintings in the collection was Carravagio’s John the Baptist.  When I got to the canvas I found myself waiting for a good five minutes to be able to take a proper look at it because someone was struggling to capture the perfect shot of it on their phone. They must have tried at least ten times to get it quite right and I don’t know how long they’d been there before I got there. Of course it’s going to be impossible to take a good photo of a painting in those conditions – the angle will never be perfect, the lighting is going to be next to useless, to say nothing of the quality of the camera itself. There’s also far less point than there is with a piece of sculpture because only a perfect full on frontal shot is going to do the work justice.

More than anything, the reason it seems pointless to me to photograph paintings is that almost any work of art that you see in a museum is going to have been photographed professionally already and you are going to be able to find a copy on the internet in perfect high definition. The excellent photo of Carravagio’s painting shown here is in the public domain on Wikipedia but there are plenty of other reproductions online and an extremely high definition one in Google Art that is under copyright. I’m sure they also sold postcards and posters of it in the museum shop. What can possibly be the point of having a second rate photo that you took yourself of something that is readily available at your fingertips in detail so crisp that you can zoom in and literally see the cracks in the paint? At least with a selfie you’re going to get an image that no one else has!

Maybe as I snapped my way around the Glyptothek or Thorvaldsen museum there were other visitors supressing irritation and asking themselves “Why’s he taking so many photos?” but I think at least I didn’t get in anybody’s way too much and I did at least spend time actually looking at the things I was photographing.

Since I realise I’m in danger of sounding like I’m auditioning for an episode of “Grumpy Old Men” and since I’ve again gone over the word limit I set myself on starting this piece I’ll leave it here. Over the next few posts you’ll be able to judge for yourself whether at least some of my reasons for taking photos were good ones. And I really will do my best to keep things short.