Put Down Your Camera and Take a Closer Look

In her column “Hey ‘Starry Night,’ say ‘Cheese!’” Deborah Solomon challenges museums’ photography policies, arguing that such bans are “practically unenforceable and are also obsolete.”
The rise of smartphones and digital cameras, as well as the popularity of photo-based social media, has created the “museum visitor today who stops in front of Rembrandts and Vermeers for only as long as it takes to snap a picture of them.” Yet Solomon insists that digital photography “enhances” our experience with art, from the act of taking the photograph to the communal aspect of sharing it with friends and family.
I would argue that the ubiquity of digital photography actually devalues our experience. In a generation in which people photograph everything from breakfasts to car accidents, it is unlikely that we are “[celebrating] the act of looking” as much as we are misusing it. The museum visitor who doggedly snaps photos of the Mona Lisa is akin to the camera-wielding concertgoer: both forgo genuine sensory experience in an earnest desire to capture a grainy picture, void of the beauty they sought to capture, that they will delete by the next week.
Somehow, photographic proof of an experience has become just as important, if not more so, than memory alone.
The rise of casual digital photography also points to a troubling cultural trend – narcissism. When visitors engage in “selfies” or “entire families pose in front of old master paintings,” they become the subject while artwork is reduced to a backdrop. Solomon criticizes museums for being “possessive” of their artwork, but these selfies and family photos are as possessive as it gets.
For these tourists, a picture of the art alone is not enough. They must insert themselves alongside it, proclaiming their relevance. Social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, only encourages this mentality.
Solomon sees this in a positive light, for as we “photograph, e-mail, tweet and Instagram paintings, we capitalize on technological innovation to expand familiarity with an ancient form.”
But this also means that we are becoming familiar with ancient art by watering it down. When we photograph Renaissance artwork with a camera phone, we can only ever appreciate it secondhand, defeating the purpose of visiting a museum in the first place.
The beauty of art museums lies in the fact that they are richly visual experiences that have been, and will continue to be, appreciated through all ages of history. It is for that reason that we should leave our digital cameras outside this sacred space.
Solomon quotes Dorothy Leange, claiming“[t]he camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” But in the digital age, where we are constantly encouraged to photograph, save, and share every aspect of our lives, we must learn to put down the camera and see with our own eyes again.