Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The No Photography Allowed Club

If you are a regular reader, you will no doubt realize that we go to a large number of gallery and museum shows in any given year (we have reviewed 43 photography shows year to date). When we go, we always try to take pictures of the installation, to give readers a feeling for the setting of the show, for the how the works are presented and staged. We almost never take pictures of single works, but do our best to give proper credit (artist, title, date etc.) when we do. And we always, without fail, ask before taking any pictures, and generally respect the law of land when photography is not allowed, even though we are often tempted to make a surreptitious snap when a guard isn't looking. If no flash is allowed, we abide by the rules.

Luckily, photography is both allowed and welcomed at more than 95% of places we go. We are therefore consistently annoyed in the few hold out places where photography is still prohibited. Here is our very short list of places where your camera is not welcome:

303 Gallery
Gagosian Gallery
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
International Center of Photography
Pace/MacGill Gallery
Whitney Museum of American Art
Yale University Art Gallery

The most egregious one on this list is the ICP. If there was anywhere on earth where photography should be welcomed and supported, it is at this venue. If the Met and the MoMA allow pictures, why not the ICP? (UPDATE: I have to qualify the MoMA's position here; of the shows on view now, the Printed Picture and Paul Graham's show allow photography; Into the Sunset does not, so MoMA does not deserve full credit for freedom.) (UPDATE2: The Met too has a dual identity at the moment: the Walker Evans show allows photography; the Pictures Generation does not.)

The logic for outlawing image making seems thin at best. One argument has to do with copyrights, and the potential infringement on artist's rights by visitors who take pictures. While I am not a lawyer, in the event a viewer did make an image and then publish it without proper crediting, it would seem to be a case between the artist and viewer, not the place in which the work was housed at the time. I suppose there is also the potential that the installation itself is copyrighted by the gallery or museum (unlikely), but again, this is only a problem if there is improper crediting/permission. (Copyright lawyers out there, please correct me if this is wrong.)

A second and more likely explanation for photography prohibition is somehow thinking that if pictures are circulated of an exhibit that less visitors will come (if they can see the pictures for free, why would they pay to visit in person). I think the age of the Internet, this thinking is short sighted, unless the exhibit is truly bad. Publicity of good exhibits should markedly increase visitors (even if the publicity is camera phone shots shared with friends), not decrease them. On the other hand, if the show is really weak, then having it exposed for what it is will clearly decrease turnout. I can't however believe that any gallery or museum thinks their shows are poor.

A final and more nuanced reason for no pictures has to do with control. I believe that some institutions don't want substandard (i.e. amateur) images of their spaces or shows floating around. So they make professional images of their installations (pefectly lit and composed) and put them on their websites (often these images are made uncopyable however, so we must resort to screen captures to make use of them). While I understand this impulse, I think that encouraging the audience to engage with the art is part of the job of these venues. Over controlling any and all interaction mutes this connection. I am consistently amazed when I am told I cannot take a picture in a gallery, when my reason for taking it is to show my wife so we can discuss it further as a potential part of our collection (the gallery would rather send me a perfect scan).

Of course, these "no photography" policies are a minor issue in the grand scheme of what's important in our world. But that said, I'd like to see more freedom for viewers to make pictures where ever and when ever they want, and perhaps this post will put some small amount of attention on the issue at the highlighted venues. And if there are other institutions that belong on this list, please put them in the comments and I'll update the post accordingly. And if your insitutiton changes its policy in favor of photography freedom, I'll happily take it off the list.

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