Sunday, January 22, 2023

Stop With The Selfies

As I start this Missive, I am totally conflicted on the issue I am about to discuss, and I am seriously interested in what others think.

In an article first published in Hyperallergic a museum guard, Dereck Stafford Mangus, who worked at several American museums over two decades recounted his experience of the changes in the attitude toward photography in museums. When he started out as a guard at the Harvard Art Museums you had to sign in at the reception desk to get permission to photograph and wear a sticker of some sort to show that you were legit. Now photography is even encouraged in museums, though still with instructions that protect the art such as no flash photography.

He urged people to stop with the selfies and put down their phones and look at and enjoy the art. Who can argue with that?

He wrote that taking photos of the works of art themselves makes no sense since one can find great reproductions in the museum shop. In my opinion these reproductions often make one think the painting is actually by a different artist or in a different medium according to its color tones and definition of the reproduction. If I do take a photograph of a work of art in a museum, it is to remember it better for a number of reasons. In my mind it makes me see the work, might I say, through a different lens. Then I usually look at the original again to think about it.

Selfies may well have changed the museum experience from what it used to be, but saying that selfies are a new phenomenon is in my opinion ridiculous. If you have ever looked at the family photos of anyone from 20 years ago you also see photos of them in front of a famous building, sculpture or other work of art. Someone took them. Who has not been asked whether they would take a photo of a couple in such and such a place. The concept is not new just the technology has changed for what was done before by others. In fact, today you do not need help and it can be less intrusive to others because there is not a third person taking the photo, who is a few paces away and you cannot pass between photographer and subject.

The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I (1459–1519) an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum opening in 2019 included a quote attributed to Maximilian I: “He who makes no memory of himself during his lifetime will have none after his death and will be forgotten with the tolling of the final knell. Therefore, the money that I expend on perpetuating my memory will not be lost”. The concept remains true today. We all want to leave our mark, and in our day and age it is often by being identified with something that we believe is of value.

Visitors don’t go to a museum to have their photo taken in front of a single work of art though that may be an ultimate goal. There will be much to catch their eye on the way. As I have written before when, as a child, I was first taken to see the Mona Lisa in the mid-fifties, it was in a wide corridor with no one looking at it and I thought the Raphael opposite must be the Mona Lisa because it was of a much prettier woman and so much larger and brighter.

There may also be other famous works of art in the same institution, for instance if you go to the Uffizi in Florence and want to take a selfie in front of Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”.

You might also want to see works by even more famous artists’ paintings such as Michelangelo’s Roundel of the Holy Family, or Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation.

One last thought, artists themselves took selfies, maybe not with an iPhone but with their paint brush. Here is a self-portrait of the artist Nicolas R├ęgnier painting a portrait of Vincenzo Giustiniani painted in 1623 or 1624.


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