Museum through a lens

7 Feb
Your work is forgotten...

Your work is forgotten.... by Bob and Roberta Smith

Street art constitutes the vast majority of what hangs on the actual walls of the museum without walls. Given the broad institutional boundaries and lack of restraints, it remains a wonder that there remains such a limited repertoire of subject and style. Graffiti doesn’t constantly surprise you any more than an art gallery does.

With street art, though, that normally redundant practice, taking two-dimensional photographs of flat objects,  is an important part of the game. Having abandoned your (anonymous) work to the vagaries of weather and municipal buffers, you can revel in its genuine ephemerality, but photography is evidence – published books of street art are documentation, not reproduction. And for the photographer, capturing a choice piece of work is not only part of exploring a new or familiar environment, but also of entering into a potential relationship with the artist. Publishing a photograph of something you found pretty and being told, after the fact, ‘that’s by Bobbyphonics’.

Less so in the gallery, where we already know what everything is, and are likely to take a picture of the label after the work, just so we get the metadata correct. But even in a gallery the visitor-photographer is more than a weak echo of the official installation photographer. Taking pictures in a gallery is performative: it records your own visit; it’s interpretive: photographs of objects from new angles and in new lights show new truths; and it’s also (without over-egging the ‘media’ part of that particular pudding) social: we can share photos of artworks we’ve seen as meaningfully as photos of people we’ve met.

At the Kinetica Art Fair, the third eye culture was in full effect. It was hard to walk from one stand to another without getting between an artwork and someone’s camera. The hectic atmosphere feels like a challenge to capture rather than regard, to take something away and create your own something out of it. Still, the nature of kinetic works seemed to provide a rare justification for cameras that record moving image, and for Flickr’s display of same.

But Kinetica is, after all, an art fair, somewhere transient, to shout and trade. In established museums and art galleries, official photography policies are moving more slowly. Object museums like the V&A lead the way because there are few ‘rights’ issues with historical and antique forms (unless they are particularly uncomfortable), but even contemporary art galleries are moving away from blanket ‘no photography’ policies.

But there are some unresolved issue about taking and using the photos. In Birmingham and Walsall this weekend, being allowed to take photographs meant: 1) signing a piece of paper saying that any photographs you took would be for ‘personal use’ only. 2) Being given a sticker with a picture of a camera on it to let gallery invigilators know you had signed said piece of paper. Even so, there were still some exceptions: the main floor of the Bob and Roberta Smith-curated ‘Inner Life of the Mind’ exhibition was strictly off limits because it contained ‘works from the Tate’ according to the main desk.

The restrictions on use suggest that the galleries understand that taking photographs can be an important part of visiting an art gallery; but that they’re still a little uncomfortable with the use of the actual photographs themselves (perhaps because the reproduction of artworks is embedded in a artworld system larger than small galleries; but also because digital photography has fundamentally changed the nature of photographs). Personally, I’m dubious about the validity of a contract I’ve signed but haven’t been given a copy of; and consider posting images on Flickr well within the bounds of ‘personal’ use.

And so all of which is really no more than being by way of introduction to four photo/video sets on Flickr of exhibitions and art I enjoyed over the weekend:

Kinetica Art Fair 2011
Street Art in Digbeth
Len Lye at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
Bob and Roberta Smith at the New Art Gallery, Walsall

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2 Responses to “Museum through a lens”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Public photography in museums: a survey « Museum Cultures - September 14, 2011

    […] been thinking a lot about personal photography and museums recently. As a civilian photographer it’s become a habit to ask, as soon as I enter a museum, […]

  2. More About Photography In Galleries | notes to the milkman - May 23, 2013

    […] quoted. This is one of the questions discussed by Danny Birchall in his survey. Danny also has another blog post discussing this topic. Both posts are worth reading, particularly the survey […]

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