Not Photographing Art

Not taking photographs may seem an odd subject to write about on a blog that was really set up to feed my photography website but it’s something I have been thinking about for quite a long time now. I am going to leave the philosophical discussion about living life in reality, rather than through a LCD screen, to which I eluded in the entry Missing the Point back in September, and instead blather on briefly (is that possible) about the rights and wrongs of photographing in Art Galleries.

I bring this up following a recent trip to New York City (or simply “NYC” as the trendies like to call it) where we visited the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Frick Collection.

As always, I carry a camera with me and in this case it was my trusty little Panasonic DMC-LX5. It’s a few models old, but does a great job with a decent wide-angle/zoom lens and is compact enough to slip in a jacket pocket. For those that may be interested in such things I usually have it set on aperture priority and have the lens stopped full open to gather as much light as possible – there being no flash built in.

Cameras 9 ©2016, Richard Reeve
Cameras 9 ©2016, Richard Reeve

MoMA was heaving with visitors, to the point in fact where it was quite difficult to appreciate the art, and the number of people clicking away, mainly with their phones, was quite surprising. This is not necessarily a problem as MoMA is quite liberal with their photography policy, even though there are many items on loan from private collections that should not be photographed as they do not belong to MoMA. As usual, I asked the staff before taking a few shots for reference and was told of ones which I could not photograph, but most visitors did not seem to be asking. It is assumed these days that we can all photograph anything, I guess.

This overuse of photography came to a head in front of Van Gogh’s Starry Night which was surrounded by a veritable scrum of viewers adopting paparazzi-like stances with overhead snapping as if the monaural artist may himself appear briefly in the village church window depicted in work and they may miss it! It seemed quite ridiculous and I was unable to actually get in front of the painting for even a brief uninterrupted close view, which was a shame.

The other behavior that seems to be odd to me and which I have not seen before was the art-selfie, as I shall call it. I was surprised to see just how many people were obsessed with getting a photograph next to a painting or sculpture, rather than actually examining the composition  or skill of the artist for a few minutes. The order of play for many guests seemed to be: stand in front of art, turn your back on it, smile (or pout), click, upload, move on.

On the other hand The Frick Collection takes the opposite approach to MoMA and only permits photographs in the garden room. No photographing in the 16 galleries is allowed. I respected their approach and, to be honest, it probably contributed in part for an improved ability to examine some of the works in much greater detail that MoMA afforded.

Now, to the point of this ramble: I was looking at reviews of The Frick Collection on TripAdvisor and I noticed that among the 400+ photographs uploaded by visitors are several images of the art pieces taken within the galleries themselves. This makes me ask a few questions such as, firstly, why are people so ignorant that they seem to think that rules don’t apply to them and, secondly, why doesn’t the Gallery or TripAdvisor police this clear breach of their policy and copyright?

As a member of a large online art community there never seems to be a day without one or more artist complaining about copyright infringement and the stealing of their images for unauthorized, uncredited and unpaid use by third parties on the web. Such conversations are usually met with vociferous defence from all quarters that “artist’s rights” or the “copyright holder’s rights” are sacrosanct and must be defended at all costs against all infringers. It can often get quite heated and complicated due to the nuances of interpreting copyright law and even the definition of “art.”

I realize that such a small sample size cannot really allow conclusions to be drawn but if the commercial outlets (and I use this term deliberately because they do make money from the display of the art) are inconsistent and fairly indifferent to enforcing their rules what are the rest of us to do?

Does this mean that, at least from the perspective of what could be regarded as “public art” the rules of copyright are no longer in play? In effect, has “mob rule,” or perhaps more appropriately, “phone rule” changed the game, and is it for good or bad? If the galleries do not pursue the infringers are they, in effect, condoning this behavior? I would be interested to hear any opinions on this below.


Reinterpreting Public Domain Images

The recent announcement by The New York Public Library (NYPL) that it is to share more of its public domain (PD) images with the public has prompted this short entry on PD images and their use. PD images are, as the description suggests, images that have no copyright attached to them and are therefore “free” to be used by the public in any means, including commercial reselling or reworking. Images may have never been copyrighted, the copyright may have expired (not renewed) or they were donated into the public domain.

Despite the NYPL’s recent announcement the largest source of easily available PD work, to my knowledge, remains the US Library of Congress (LOC) with over one million searchable items arranged in collections, out of a total of 15 million items. This provides a fascinating source of information, not only for the historian, but also for the artist to use either directly or as inspiration.

Like many others, I have used PD images in several works on my art site. I find the LOC site easy to navigate and almost addictive as I search through items. Not everything that can be viewed on screen is always downloadable, but often times large .jpegs are available and even very high quality .tiff files, which allows for some excellent artistic opportunities.

Generally speaking I don’t like to simply use the image “as is” but a quick google reverse image search shows that many people do just that, as they are legally allowed to. Instead I prefer to work on the image to some degree.This may mean just “cleaning up” the work, by removing scratches, dust and watermarks, and other artifacts, or it could be recovering details lost in the original, such as with this 19th century poster from the age of ballooning:


Other approaches I take may include selectively recoloring the image to add emphasis to an aspect of a photograph. Many people colorize PD images with varying degrees of artistic interpretation, often over doing it, in my opinion. I prefer a subtle color application, as as I have achieved with this photograph of Santa Claus but, as with all art, it’s really a matter of personal preference.


Finally, there is an opportunity to create a completely new artistic interpretation by blending imagery together to tell a new story. By way of example, I used the famous LOC image of an aging Geronimo together with four other photographs taken from his era and just thereafter to create this unique composite image to show how much America changed during the lifetime of one of its indigenous people:


Note that by creating a completely new artwork, involving significant artistic interpretation and work the resulting image is no longer in the public domain and is now copyrighted by the artist (that’s me, folks).

Even if you don’t get as hooked on this source of history and art as I have done, it a least provides a fascinating way to see images of bygone days whilst browsing the library catalogs from your laptop.


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