No Photographs Allowed

in Front Page/Opinion/Potpourri by

By Ava Cotlowitz


“Excuse me miss, no photographs allowed.”

With a frantic gesture, I brought my camera phone to my side and stared blankly into the eyes of a six foot five museum guard.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, walking off in the opposite direction.

That wasn’t the only photo I failed to take that day, at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Photo number one of Paul Cézanne’s Toward Mont Sainte-Victoire was a blurry capture, as I attempted to snap the photo from my purse while walking; photo number two of Pablo Picasso’s Girl Holding a Cigarette was cut short by the admonishing eyes of a nearby security guard; and photo number three of Vincent Van Gogh’s The Postman was non-existent due to the utterance of those three little words I dread to come by, “no photographs allowed.”

While my persistent attacks on the museum regime may have seemed like the workings of menacing rule-breaker, my photographing motives couldn’t have been more benign.

As a passionate art-lover, I look forward to visiting art museums and documenting my favorite works as well as sharing my memoriam online with friends and family.

For years, art museum directors and historians have shunned the possibility of allowing museum-goers to photograph the fine art-adorned walls. Flash photography has been reported to diminish the lives of canvas, paint, and paper, special collection exhibitions have been watched with wary eyes to prohibit the photography of copyrighted artwork on loan, and rigid museum board members have defended their right to control the aesthetic experience of exhibitions, condemning the cramped clutter of tourist photographers.

According to The New York Times, director of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Anne Hawley was “appalled” and had to “leave the gallery” when a flood of tourists with cameras rushed into an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris.

The Louvre is among several of the greatest art museums in the world to permit photography on their premises, along with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the National Gallery of Art.

While there are certain areas of the aforementioned museums that do not permit flash photography, there are also many spaces that do allow the use of flash.

The New York Times reported that chief of conservation at Washington’s National Gallery of Art Mervin Richard said,

“Fears that flashes damage art are left over from the days when people used flashbulbs, which could actually explode. After personally examining studies of the effects of light exposure on art, I’ve concluded that there is little risk.”

Yet, many smaller, more exclusive regional museums like The Barnes Foundation, the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Forth, Pennsylvania, and the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania have zero tolerance for any form of artwork photography.

It’s a shame that in this era of technology many museums still cannot bear to jump on the bandwagon and, at the least, reap the rewards of free Internet publicity via online photo sharing.

With viral social media platforms for photo sharing such as Instagram, Flickr, Tumblr, and Facebook, the pool of people that can now be responsible for advertising any given thing online has expanded to, well, basically all of us.

During my trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art last week, I snapped a photo of a wall of fine art I particularly enjoyed. After uploading the photo to both Instagram and Facebook 20 minutes later, I received a multitude of ‘likes’ and positive comments on the photos, inexplicably marketing the museum commodity through arguably the most viewed platform to currently exist, the World Wide Web.

While my pleasure of photographing fine art is not solely derived from my photos’ overall reception, there is no questioning its consequential benefit for the museums themselves.

All it takes are those responsible for issuing the ‘No Photographs Allowed’ signs plastered across art museum walls to consider the everyday museum-goer hoping to experience artwork with an everlasting snapshot.



  1. I completely disagree. I go to museums to actually look at the art, not photograph it.

    I was once standing in front of a Van Gogh that was on loan to the MFA in Boston, drinking it in, when an incredibly rude, college-age couple walked right in front of me and started taking pictures. I walked right around in front of them and began to look at the painting again, whereupon they made huffy noises about how rude I was being and then left.

    And there was Ms. Hawley in Paris, trying to look closely at a masterwork, only to be pushed and pummeled by a bunch of people who just wanted to take a picture that proved they have been there and move on.

    Modern day flash photography may not damage paintings, I don’t know. But it’s very disruptive and annoying to other museum goers. In small spaces people with cameras run the risk of bumping into other artworks or visitors as they back up and move around with their camera glued to their face, trying to get a shot.

    I have been an art museum volunteer for 10 years and have worked in other museums. I have a word of advice for Ms. Cotlowitz and her friends: next time you go to a museum – especially a wonderfully funky one like the Barnes – leave the cell phone in your bag and engage with the art. Take a tour, listen to a talk or ask a question of a gallery volunteer. Then pull some stock photos for your blog and write about your experience. I think you’ll have a much more memorable time that way.

  2. Bonjour

    Its the same more or less in Paris that is why I set up a film festival musées (em)portables: you take a film museum with your mobile. Next year I am going to make muche more and perhaps with official support. Look at the last award on our web site and also on twitter. JFG

  3. Here, here! I totally agree!!!! I try to buy postcards of particularly special works and they are often not available!

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