A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[PHOTO] In defense of photographs at art galleries, even selfies

On my Tumblr feed a week or two ago, I came across an article of some interest to me, “An Amsterdam Museum Asks Visitors to Trade Their Selfie Sticks for Pencils and Paper”.

Rijksmuseum, an arts and history museum located in the heart of Amsterdam, is asking visitors to put down their cameras and pick up a pen next time they enter the museum’s walls. Rijksmuseum’s new campaign #startdrawing wants to slow down observers, encouraging attendees to draw sculptures and paintings that interest them rather than snapping a picture and moving on to the next work in quick succession.

By slowing down the process of observation, the visitor is able to get closer to the artist’s secrets, the museum explains, engaging with each work by actively doing instead of passively capturing. “In our busy lives we don’t always realize how beautiful something can be,” said Wim Pijbes, the general director of the Rijksmuseum. “We forget how to look really closely. Drawing helps because you see more when you draw.” The museum has begun to highlight drawings completed by participants on their Instagram as well as their blog associated with the campaign here.

Banning cameras (or softly dissuading attendees from using them) is also a way to bring the focus from the selfie an attendee may take with a work of art to the masterpiece before them. A perfectly timed exhibition titled “Selfies on Paper” is currently on display in the museum — 90 self-portraits from well known artists from the 17th to 20th century spread through each floor of the museum. The exhibition shows how artists captured themselves on paper while acting as a challenge to those who might have thought selfie sticks were the only tool appropriate for self preservation. “Selfies on Paper” will run though the winter.

Oh. Where do I start?

Perhaps I should note that giving me a pen and some paper to sketch upon is not going to produce anything lasting. Even assuming that I can draw, and that I have the time, any paper document I would take with me from the museum would likely go with,the other papers I take from museums, into closets and bins and eventually sent off to be recycled. Some people might prefer ephemera; I prefer artifacts which have the durabilty of the digital.

More to the point, who is to say that photography is not an activity that requires a certain amount of skill and attention. I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario’s fantastic Welcome to Colville exhibition twice, and took photos of the Alex Colville works most important to me both times. (They can be found on my blog, here and here.) I can assure the reader that I took great care in looking at this artworks, paying attention to them, trying to compose images in my mind.

Alex Colville, "To Prince Edward Island" (1963)

Is the process of photography different from drawing? Sure. Are there things in common between the two processes? Definitely. I’m certainly engaging with the art.

There’s also the question of the selfie, raised slightingly in the article. As a glance at my photographic output should make clear, I’m not especially fond of the selfie myself. Leaving aside a possible reluctance to be photographed, I think that I see the photographer as implicit in the photograph. When you see one of my photographs, you hopefully see something close to what I saw there on the museum floor.

That said, there definitely are photographs of me at Welcome to Colville. My mother took this photograph of me in front of “To Prince Edward Island” on our trip to the AGO, my second to see this exhibition.

Me and "To Prince Edward Island"

The plush lobster claw on my arm, something available in the exhibit’s gift shop, was a straightforward selfie.

Me, wearing a lobster claw, at Welcome to Colville, AGO

What’s wrong with inserting myself into my memory of the exhibit? Why should I not have digital documents showing me a wonderful afternoon I had with my visiting mother, or documenting my bemusement at finding such a thing as a plush lobster claw? Should I efface myself, not have any kind of explicit presence at all? I think not.

There’s nothing wrong with a program encouraging visitors to draw artworks they see. There’s also nothing wrong with letting visitors take photographs of those same artworks in ways meaningful to them.

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Written by Randy McDonald

December 28, 2015 at 10:12 pm

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