Should I photograph this?

We are in Vancouver for a long weekend and went to the Vancouver Art Gallery to check out their shows. On one floor I took one cellphone photo, then another, and soon was photographing every piece I walked by. I always enter a museum thinking “this time I’m not taking any photos” and then take a bunch. It becomes a burden once I’ve started—not taking a photo of pieces makes it feel like I’m letting the art slip away. The first time I think “oh just this one really interesting piece I want to remember” and then I end up taking a photo of everything I find marginally interesting or beautiful lest I forget the works. But i’m not sure photographing things is really that great a memory bank for me. I have 40,000… 40,000 photos on my computer to tidy when I get home from this holiday. That is more photos than I need of anything, and certainly the quantity of them makes finding a memorable photo of art in there difficult.

So anyway, on the next floor I decided, on the way up the escalator, that I would take no photos on that floor. Many of the pieces were incredibly, achingly beautiful and I normally would have taken photos, but I feel like not taking photos made me engage with the art more deeply. Rather than avoiding the feelings of a really overwhelming piece of art, with no apparatus between us, I simply had to feel it fully. I feel like there’s something of Barthes’ Camera Lucida in this—not photographing the art makes me feel more aware of the transitory nature of life and then the full force of how art exists my life and that space and time where I’ll see it and feel it just the once (especially if it’s a show out of town and I can’t go back to see it again).

I have some photos from museums that are really meaningful to me. Ones of my dad, or ones of shows I saw with him, principally. The last show we saw together was Anna Torma at the Esker, and I was really emotionally affected when I saw on his camera the photos he had taken of the show. I’m not sure if he ever had the opportunity to go back and look at them, as he took them relatively soon before he passed away. They’re a little blurry—his hands a little unsteady from the side effects of chemo, so there’s strong evidence of him in those photos. So I don’t want to be dismissive of the potential power of taking some photos of art in galleries. But for me there is a balance between avoiding taking photos in a way that wrecks or undermines the experience of the art, and taking photos that really do or will mean something to me.

Vikki Alexander - Extreme Beauty - Vancouver Art Gallery (and David)

Vikki Alexander - Extreme Beauty - Vancouver Art Gallery (and David)