Myths: Why Flash Photography Is Banned In Art Galleries

Myths: Why Flash Photography Is Banned In Art Galleries

Evil flashes terrify museum guards. Photo Phil Hearing / Flickr

NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY. You’ve all read that sign, and you have all likely – being good obedient citizens – abided by the wishes of the museum or gallery which posted it. But why is it there? Why can’t you use your camera’s flash to take a photo of a painting or a sculpture? The answer, it seems, is as depressingly wrongheaded as you might suspect.

Last week, Imaging Resource writer Steve Meltzer went to a photography exhibition. The ubiquitous sign was there, so he asked the security guard just why he couldn’t use flash:

His response was “le froid de la lumière est mauvaise pour l’art” – “the cold from the flash is bad for the art.” Cold from the flash? Say what?

At first, I laughed. Was this some weird Jedi mind trick?

So Steve did what any self-respecting and curious blogger would do: he looked it up on the internet. The paper he found, titled Assessing the harm done by flash photography by Martin H. Evans, details several tests done to determine the effects of light on museum exhibits. And it seems that flashes, even high power flashes placed close to the artwork and fired repeatedly for months, have no more effect on the works than the ambient light in the gallery.

Evans looked at the data from a test done by the National Gallery in London, which used two powerful flashguns, one with the UV filter removed, and one left standard. The unshielded flash caused minor pigment fading after several months. The shielded unit had no effect.

Meltzer concludes that curators have collectively talked themselves into this fallacy, and the security guards are – as usual – mindlessly carrying out orders.

The photographers reading this will not be surprised, of course: “Security” personnel have been fabricating anti-photography “rules” since forever. I have another theory, though.

Have you ever tried to snap a picture of a classic painting in a gallery, only to be told that it is “copyrighted”? I have, and this is bullshit. Even if the painting, photo etc. hasn’t yet passed into the public domain (which all Old Masters have, years ago), then taking a photo of it violates nothing. If you decide to sell a book of photos of in-copyright work, then that’s a different matter, but snapping a photo is perfectly legal.

What’s really happening is that the museum wants you to buy its postcards. I wish they would just be honest about this. And I suspect the early bans on flash photography were simply another way of preventing photos in general: after all, a typical film camera was loaded with a roll of ISO 100 film, which wouldn’t take an indoor photo without flash.

Still, even with this new flash info, you probably still shouldn’t take flash photos in galleries: they’ll look as terrible as all your other flash pictures.

Related
  • theNewerYorkPub

    Funny but not true. The idea of art MUSEUMS (note not galleries, who just followed museums) is to protect art for all of eternity. And, over say, 2000 years, there will be far more flashes of UNKNOWN strength, hitting the pigments of a painting. Now, I’ve left a painting by a window for a year and you bed your ass too much light damages them. Furthermore, they probably outlaw it because you go to a museum to SEE the art, if you want a picture of it, just google it. It’s hard to stand and enjoy a painting when you’re always in the way of someone’s lens.

  • theNewerYorkPub

    Funny but not true. The idea of art MUSEUMS (note not galleries, who just followed museums) is to protect art for all of eternity. And, over say, 2000 years, there will be far more flashes of UNKNOWN strength, hitting the pigments of a painting. Now, I’ve left a painting by a window for a year and you bed your ass too much light damages them. Furthermore, they probably outlaw it because you go to a museum to SEE the art, if you want a picture of it, just google it. It’s hard to stand and enjoy a painting when you’re always in the way of someone’s lens.

  • renowden

    And also because the flash irritates the hell out of other people just wanting to look at the pictures in the serene calm of an art gallery.

  • René Fourneaux

    Using the flash while taking a photo of a painting will only look “terrible” as YOUR photos might…. because paintings have dimension to them. You would need to tamp your flash, or bounce it.
    It also IS a copyright violation to take a photos of art… Ask yourself this… what is a picture. it is a COPY of what the lens is “seeing”. It is no different than recording the sound or video at a concert. That is copyright infringement. Learn the laws before falsely preaching if you want to avoid looking ignorant.

  • TheKnightWhoSaysNi

    I think it’s just to keep people from being annoying at museums.
    Same as the cellphone rule on airplanes.

  • digitaltara

    It’s a little dated, but this has some interesting discussion and links to actual statues:

    http://www.tzplanet.com/words/photographing-copyrighted-work-can-you-or-not/62

  • DrBermant

    Sorry to spoil on your parade. Pigments are often oxides of metals. Light levels can change oxide states over time, basic physics. A short term test like you describe is insufficient to announce protection of treasures. You can see the effect of light levels on photographs and other pigment sources. The protection of these images makes sense from these basic principles. I remember reading many resources on this from the archiving of images from Kodak. No, silver image oxidizing is not a different issue than lead oxide or titanium oxide. Flash images also add unnatural reflections ruining the image taken. In addition, the flashes are distracting to other viewers. I for one am glad to have the flashes banned. I do like taking digital natural light images and videos. Most times videos are banned. The reasons are that they want to preserve the value of coming to the museum. Not sure I buy that. Once they let Google in with their google gallery, being able to get up close to the brushstrokes proves to be an incredible experience that permits the disabled to enjoy the museum experience. But back on topic, level of lighting as well as flash are critical as we open up tombs, both light, oxygen, humidity, and pollutants all can change the nature of the art work.

    Michael Bermant, M.D.
    Retired Plastic Surgeon

  • Paragraphics

    The guy who wrote this article just isn’t thinking straight and/or has not bothered to educate himself. Maybe he has never been to an art museum. As others have pointed out, a museum is a place to view and appreciate art…without the commotion of photographers climbing all over the place, and setting off strobe lights. And, light does harm artwork…can alter colors, and cause fading, etc. And, contrary to what this writer thinks, there *are* copyright and other kinds of “permission issues” related to taking photos of artwork.

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Charlie Sorrel Charlie Sorrel is the Reviews Editor here on Cult of Mac. Follow Charlie  on Twitter at @mistercharlie.

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