It was a cold and cloudy winter in St. Louis and my photography was suffering from extreme de-motivation. So after work one day I took myself to an art museum that I’d been meaning to go to, but for one reason or another (I had to wash my hair – or dust my growing lens collection) hadn’t yet visited.
Visiting museums and galleries is often a part of the tourist experience – even if I’m only traveling down the road a bit. This article is about photographing in museums and other artistic spaces – making photographic art from the art of others. I posted a quick tip about this topic earlier in the year, but now I’ve had a bit more time to develop some practical tips.
Photographing in a museum is not about taking faithful photographs of the art works (though I supposed you can do that as well), it’s about finding your unique vision of the art.
Art makes for great photos!
Let’s start with photographing the museum or gallery space itself.
On this particular rainy day in St. Louis, I went to museum housed in a specially designed modern space, but some museums are housed in beautiful older buildings. Before even getting to the art, explore the space. It is possible for the building to be more interesting than the art it contains. Sorry Glasgow, but I was more interested in the cool mirrored walls in the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) and the details of this interesting building than I was in the art installations.
I visited another museum in Glasgow, The Lighthouse, specifically to photograph the helical spiral staircase in the Mackintosh Tower. I found very cool modern architecture, but also some very inspiring installations including a photographic exhibit “Nobody’s Home” that I still think about frequently.
Go to every corner of the museum and look around – even if the museum didn’t intend for you to look at in this particular corner. And be sure to look up!
My husband and I were surprised to find a grand staircase in the Pitti Palace in Florence. We walked through a doorway that hundreds of other tourists had walked by without a glance. We ended up in a beautiful grand staircase alone with my camera – a rarity in this city teaming with tourists. With a little bit of exploration, there are hidden gems everywhere – even during high tourist season in Florence.
Light and Reflections
I specifically keep an eye out for interesting lighting and reflections. The walls of the GOMA were designed to show reflections, but there are shadows and reflections everywhere in museums.
Glass in frames regardless of what is actually in the frame, can capture reflections of the space or juxtapose one piece of art on another. This is also good opportunity for self-portraits – street photographer Vivian Maier is known for a series of self-portraits taken in reflections.
The art is hung in a very specific way by the museum – lighting an exhibit is an art in and of itself. But change your angle to the art and look at the space in a way the curators hadn’t intended and you may find some interesting photographs.
As a photographer, I can be inspired by the artworks I see in museums. I can look at the way the masters handled light or posing or negative space and apply these lessons to my own compositions, but I’m not really interested in making photographs of the art. If I want a copy of a Picasso, it’s easier to buy a poster or a postcard.
But this doesn’t mean that I’m going to leave my camera at home when I visit a museum!
I rarely take photos directly of the art, but I do sometimes take photos that give just a glimpse of the art. Maybe I focus on a corner or a shape or a color or a swirl. Sometimes I capture just the artist’s signature. When a piece of art catches my eye I look carefully for why. If I focus in, in a pseudo-macro sort of way. I’m capturing the artwork in a way that others haven’t seen it because rarely do people look at the art this carefully.
Essentially, I’m finding the art within the art.
Look for unintended juxtapositions between art works or similarities in shapes or use the architecture to frame the art in a unique way. This is now your unique vision of the exhibit.
Sculpture is 360 degrees – so I always completely walk around the entire artwork, if this is possible, to find the angle that no one sees.
When photographing the art works, I’m not taking about product photography where the purpose of the photo is to faithfully represent the object – in this case an artwork. Instead, I explore ways of photographing the other artists’ work in a unique and interesting way.
Don’t forget the photographic possibilities of the people in the museum; essentially approaching the museum as a street scene. Famed street photographer Valerie Jardin has an ongoing project photographing people in museums. This is especially the case if the people are reacting in some way to the artwork.
If there are chairs or benches, sit for a bit and watch other visitors come and go. Some people are bored, others are so absorbed in the art that they lose track of everything else. I particularly like photographing tourists photographing the art works on their cell phones. I guess they’ll look at the art later.
Placing people in the frame adds scale, but also adds the human experience to the artwork. Visiting a museum, looking at art are both actions. See if you can capture this action in your photographs.
Before photographing in a museum or gallery, find out the photo policy of the institution. Many don’t care as long as you are not using flash. That’s ok – open up your aperture and let your ISO float up a bit – most modern cameras can handle the higher ISO.
Photographing in a museum isn’t about faithfully representing the art works, but finding your unique vision.