Photographing public artworks: signs of ‘affiliation and affection’?

Photographing 'Couple on Street', Lynn Chadwick, (1984), Canary Wharf Public Art Collection, London.

Photographing ‘Couple on Street’, Lynn Chadwick, (1984), Canary Wharf Public Art Collection, London.

This week I’ve come across two blog posts about the pros and cons of taking photographs of objects in museums. This has nudged me to put down a few notes here about my own reflections around people’s attraction to photographing public artworks beyond the confines of the museum.

From my own street observations over the years and recent scannings of the internet and social media for images of public artworks from the Newcastle-Gateshead ‘collection’ (the subject of my current PhD study) it would seem that taking a photograph of, or posing for a photograph with, public artworks is almost instinctive. With a camera, or smartphone, in your hand when you encounter a new or striking piece of public art it seems the obvious thing to do (if, that is, you are photographically inclined).

Could this stopping to take a photograph be seen as a primary signal of audience engagement with a public artwork, an object which may more typically be seen only peripherally while passing-by on the way to somewhere/something else? Could the short moment taken to do this be the longest time anyone deliberately spends ‘with’ the work? In public space it seems that photography could be a more acceptable public behaviour than other more physical forms of interaction with these objects. Although sited without barriers (and watchful gallery staff) we may not feel free to touch, or even to walk round, step back, go close to these objects, as we might be tempted or indeed expected to do when encountering artworks in a museum or gallery. In the urban public realm I’ve rarely witnessed these kinds of ‘looking at art’ behaviours outside of a formal public art tour.

‘Powerless Structures Fig. 101’, Elmgren and Dragset, The 4th Plinth, London, 2012-13

Photographing ‘Powerless Structures Fig. 101’, Elmgren and Dragset, (2012-13), The 4th Plinth, London.

So why do people take photographs of public artworks? What does it indicate about a person’s relationship to these objects? What do people do with or get from these images they have taken?

In the latest of his blog series ‘Tilting at Windmills’, Ed Rodley suggests that rather than taking photographs to document the objects they have seen, museum visitor’ photography, and the subsequent sharing of that imagery e.g. via social media, is a representation of their ‘affiliation’ with the chosen object and with the institution of the museum. For Rodley these photographic acts are ‘underutilized and under-appreciated’ by museum professionals, who are often more concerned to control visitor photography than to encourage it.

Visitor photography and its relationship to the museum experience is also the subject of Jamie Glavic’s recent post ‘Reflection vs. Collection’ on the Museum Minute blog. This is written in part response to a recent research study (by Linda Henkel) that suggests that taking photographs in the museum actually prevents rather than assists visitors in remembering the objects they have seen. As Glavic writes, Henkel has labelled this phenomenon the ‘photo-taking-impairment effect’. Interestingly though, Henkel’s study did find that when people began to explore objects with the camera further, to photograph specific details, they did retain a clearer memory of the object. Glavic notes that Henkel’s study only investigated the effects of the act of taking a photograph, not what people subsequently did with or thought about the images they had made.

Do Rodley and Glavic’s posts and Henkel’s findings reflect what happens beyond the gallery? Outside the museum, in the ’public realm’ we are generally freer to photograph the artworks we encounter than we are in the museum/art gallery, although there are sometimes similar concerns, and occasional controversies, around copyright infringement and security issues. (In my own work I have been stopped several times from taking photographs of public artworks on the Tyne and Wear Metro by its security staff, for example.) Can we take these ‘posings for photographs with public artworks’, ‘selfies’, Flickr portfolios and crowdsourced online public/‘street art’ directories as signals of ‘affiliation and affection’ with the artworks represented? Or are these images perhaps more like trophies of time and place (a more simple visual statement of ‘I was here’)?

NOTES AND REFERENCES

Ed Rodley is Associate Director of Integrated Media at Peabody Essex Museum, Boston (USA). He blogs at Thinking about museums. Jamie Glavic is Strategic Projects Coordinator at Ohio Historical Society (USA).

Rodley, E. (2013) ‘Tilting at Windmills, Part Three’, Thinking about museums, 8 December. Available at: http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/tilting-at-windmills-part-three/ (Accessed: 08.01.14).

Glavic, J. (2013) ‘Reflection vs. Collection’, Museum Minute, 11 December. Available at: http://museumminute.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/reflection-vs-collection-a-new-report-looks-at-the-effect-of-picture-taking-on-remembering-the-museum-experience/ (Accessed: 08.01.14).

Henkel, L. (2013) ‘Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour’, Psychological Science, XX (X), pp. 1-7, Sage [Online]. Available at: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/12/04/0956797613504438 (Accessed: 08.01.14).

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