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.

Source: Imaging Resource