Smile or smirk – why? and who is he?

This isn’t the post I had anticipated writing – an introduction to art galleries, and the research opportunities they can provide.

This is because a visit to an art gallery last month turned out to be quite different from what I was expecting.

Rather than spending time in the gallery’s permanent exhibition space looking at individual paintings, gaining historical insights from them and contemplating their potential for a story, I found myself studying my fellow gallery goers instead. As is often the case we were a mix of ages, and sizes, individuals and groups. Each of us going at our own pace.

A new departure, in my experience anyway, was the use of photography, or more precisely smartphone photography by some visitors. It is only recently that art galleries and museums have allowed photography (or should that be no longer enforce the ban on the use of photography?) in their buildings. Cameras were originally banned because flashlight was deemed to have a detrimental effect on the paintings.

I noticed that those who did use their mobile phones to take a picture of a picture, did so selectively. Perhaps this was their equivalent of choosing a postcard as a souvenir from the gift shop. I admit to annoyance when there isn’t a postcard reproduction of the particular painting I want and this happens quite frequently…

So, instead of standing close to the painting to look at the masterpiece in detail, the visitor with the smartphone positions themselves slightly further away to frame the painting in their phone viewer. While in most cases the individual was attempting to do this discretely, it was, nevertheless quite distracting to me.

It also made me wonder whether they actually looked at the real, physical painting properly. It probably took them longer to arrange the taking of the photograph than the time they spent actually looking at the painting in situ. Or was looking at the snap later sufficient?

Surely though, seeing a work of art in real life is better than a reproduction, whatever the quality? Even in respected art catalogues, the colour reproduction can vary considerably.

Maybe this new behaviour is a result of what we are told is an ever decreasing attention span due to our use of technology, from television to the internet. Look at a picture briefly, take a photo of it and view it later.

I will continue to take my time when viewing art, I’ll look at the detail, see the brushstrokes, and savour the experience.

This month the National Gallery announced that it was banning the use of selfie sticks,(1) following similar rulings by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Modern Museum of Art (MOMA) in New York.

I’d first come across one of these elongated poles in Paris last December being used by a couple of tourists outside Notre Dame. Evidently these camera extension sticks provide a wider angle and therefore a better picture. My reaction was of mild bemusement – afterall someone who hates having their photograph taken as much as I do is never going to be a selfie taker, with or without this piece of equipment.

They are ok to use in the great outdoors, I suppose, but not within the confines of a building, and definitely not one where priceless works of art hang. It will be interesting to see which other galleries throughout the world follow suit in forbidding the use of selfie sticks.

(1)  See the news item on the BBC website.

Does your smartphone use include taking photos of pictures in art galleries?

If so, which ones have you taken recently?

Let me know in the comments below.