Recently I returned to the Musée d’Orsay. The first thing I did was to take the five floors up to the Post-Impressionist collection to Douanier Rousseau’s painting War. Last year I regretted not having taken a picture of it to use in the classes I teach at the Lab School because there is no reproduction available (don’t get me started about the glut of Mona Lisa postcards, posters, puzzles, coasters, clocks and the comparative dearth of other works of art: this is a whole other issue that deserves to be treated at length).
Anywho. I was framing the picture in the viewer of my discrete digital camera and a little, tiny corner of an old leather jacket was in the picture. I waited a minute or so and then politely asked the man wearing the leather jacket if he could move over for a second while I snapped a photo. Well. He looked at me (down at me – I’m a mere five foot tall), his face of an equine sort, his bad teeth showing as his mouth dropped open, and didn’t say anything for a few seconds. I thought maybe he hadn’t understood my request, so I repeated myself, this time in English. That’s when I got the snub of a lifetime (in a British accent, no less): “I come to museums to look at paintings, not to take pictures. What do you come here for?” Well, the Goddess of Repartee was with me that day (normally good comebacks materialize a few days later while I’m knitting or sitting on the pot): “I come to museums to take pictures, but I like to buy stuff too.” He snorted at me, spun on his heels, and trotted off.
This brings me to a subject that I’ve been pondering all year while visiting museums: to shoot or not to shoot. Susan Sontag in her book On Photography discusses the role it plays in tourism and vacations: people in today’s mundus imaginum (I did that just to sound impressive – it simply means world of images) have come to depend on photos to validate experience. A young woman I interviewed from Berck-sur-Mer told me a joke the other day that I’m sure Sontag would have enjoyed: a friend asks a friend how his trip was, to which he replies: “I don’t know, I haven’t developed the pictures yet.”
Those who take pictures in museums often do it for just this reason: to prove that they saw the painting (this is especially true when the person poses with the painting as they would with a friend or family member). Taking a photo of the painting, “shooting” it (Sontag discusses the semantic reverberations of “to take” and “to shoot” in her book) means to capture it, to consume it; the photo serves as a talisman representing the visitor’s taste and his journey through the museum.
Taking pictures of paintings can also reduce one’s own experience with painting. The camera is the thing looking at the painting, not the person. The person focuses on mechanical issues: framing, turning off the flash (if he follows the rules), and holding his hand still, so that the camera makes a good reproduction of what is right in front of him. It is as if I were to take a friend to a restaurant, watch him eat a good meal, and then ask, How was it?
For to experience a painting is different from looking at its reproduction. Walter Benjamin speaks of the real deal as having an aura: just as radium emits radiation, a painting emanates the effort and presence of the painter which comes out of the painting to greet us as we stand before it. Taking a picture of an image is a one-sided experience. Looking at a painting without the mediation of the camera is a two-sided one; we enter into a dialogue with it. In his book The Open Image French art critic and historian George Didi-Huberman speaks of images as if they were organic objects: “Images embrace us: they open up to us and close themselves to us in so far as they conjure up in us something that we could call an interior experience.” If we open up to the image, without protection or the desire to possess it, the image will reciprocally open itself up to us.
I sound as if I agree with Mr. Horse Snob (Equi-Snobus), don’t I? Well, that’s just it. I did agree with him at the start of the year, but after spending time talking to people in museums about why they take pictures of paintings I have come to realize that there are some excellent reasons. It’s easy to go to museums with preconceived notions about how people really don’t take the time to look at paintings (such notions flatter one’s own sense of cultural superiority); it’s much more interesting to talk to people and learn that museums are in fact filled with people for whom art resonates quietly (or loudly) in their lives and that taking a picture of a painting doesn’t necessarily mean that a museum experience is qualitatively any less for them than it is for someone who shuns the camera.
Here are some interesting examples I’ve encountered this year about how the camera aids people’s experience at museums: Kamilah from California keeps a portfolio of paintings on her computer that have moved her and writes about her experiences, a man I spoke to takes a picture of a painting only when he finds one that particularly speaks to him and doesn’t know the painter well; he takes a picture of the painting along with the identification plate so he can further research the artist and the painting later. At the Louvre a few days ago a young Russian pianist living in Paris and I talked at length about Watteau’s painting Pierrot, dit autrefois Gilles. She was so thrilled to have discussed the painting with someone that she wanted me to take her picture with the painting as a visual memory of our encounter (besides, her red hair matched the wall behind the painting to a tee). Finally, I’ve come up with my own use of photographed paintings in museums: as desktop pictures. I take just part of the painting (for instance, an up-close Courbet’s signature from L’Hallili du cerf or part of the allegorical painting The Funeral of Love by Antoine Caron where one of the cupids looks at the observer – he alone does this – as if to say can you believe this painting?!). My favorite (and the one currently on my computer) is an up-close of Gilles, slightly off-center: his face, quiet and almost blank, reveals a different emotion, whispers a different story, every time I turn on my machine.