Monday, June 19, 2006

Art Museums, cameras, copyrights... Come On!

[Image, Sherrie Levine's, Untitled (After Egon Schiele), 1984]

Several times over the last year I have thought about writing about a growing pet peeve of mine, not being able to take pictures of an artwork in a museum. I first decided not to write about this in regards to Indianapolis, as I had never had trouble taking pictures in the IMA, as long as no flash was used. Fair enough. But recently a friend of mine was scolded by one of the security personnel for trying to take a picture of one of his favorite works that was not in the permanent collection. Issues of copyrights were brought up. Why? That is my question.

Artists and Arts Professionals are always saying how viewing art is something you have to do in person. Viewing photographs and/or digital images on the internet are not even close to viewing art in person. We all know that you can not really capture the sense of a sculpture with a photograph. You can not photograph a painting and still get the same effect of scale, luminosity, and texture. So why is it we can not take pictures. Is it the lawyers, or the fear of having to deal with them the problem? Who are these artists who are saying, go ahead and show my work in a public venue but don't you dare let them take pictures of my work. As an artists I want my work to be seen by more people, and as long as other people are not profiting off my images I see no problem with taking pictures of the work.

Is this the reason for the halt on photographing works in museum shows? Artists afraid of loosing a profit off their image? If so, who are these people that are making profits off of photographs taken inside museum shows? Where are these fake prints people are buying of work shown in a museum show? Ummm, there is Eric Doeringer but common' everyone knows what he sells is a fake, there in lies the joke. Imagine the irony of not being able to photograph a Sherrie Levine piece. And really, if there is in fact a market for cheap bad photographs of works in museum shows, maybe that is because the museums fail to let people take their own pictures or offer other options.

In one highly irritating experience I had a several months ago at the Albright Knox Museum in Buffalo, (having not seen a sign not allowing photographs) I was strolling around the exhibition and came across a piece by Adrian Schiess that I had not seen before and later a nice piece by James Hyde. So I took out my cell phone camera and took a quick pic of the two pieces for reference, as I was expecting to write a positive review of the show I saw there. Well, instantly I got scolded by one of their security guys. I put my phone camera away (have any of you seen the quality of image a cell phone camera takes, really it is nothing close to good) and asked where I may be able to find a picture of the pieces in question. He was clueless. He said I should buy the catalog if I wanted a picture of it. Well, I had bought one earlier that day and guess what, neither of those pieces were in the catalog. In fact the catalog showed works by artists that were not even included in the show, and most of the pieces they did show by an artist was not the actual work on display by that artists. Later I went to the main desk and again enquired who I could talk to about getting images of the works I was interested in, and let them know that I was writing a review of the show and would like those pieces to illustrate my review, again they had no clue who I could possibly talk to, to get permission or any existing images of the art works. In brief this experience pissed me off greatly and though I really enjoyed the show, probably the best show I had seen the entire year, I decided not to review it.

Where ever this problem lies, whether it is with the museums, the galleries, the artists, or the copyright lawyers, we really need to deal with this issue. Art after all is a visual language and we need images to continue this ongoing dialogue. I say, for those artists out there, let us stand up and make sure that we are not responsible for such petty and troublesome issues. Let's make sure that we allow our works to be seen and photographed by the public, particularly when the work is on display in a public institution. When commercial photographs are needed then we can pull out our bag of copyrights, but until then let the images be free.

30 Responses to “Art Museums, cameras, copyrights... Come On!”

Christopher said...
June 20, 2006 at 10:05 PM

Good post Scott, something I've often wondered.

Anonymous said...
June 21, 2006 at 12:13 AM

I used to work at the Artists Rights Society in New York and it's very important to let visual artists (or their descendants) control how and where their work is reproduced. Some families, like the Rothkos, wanted control over every reproduction, whereas a lot of others just wanted compensation if their work was going to be printed in a book and wanted to be informed and allowed to decide if their work was going to end up on a cheesy magnet in a gift shop or cheap post cards. How art is presented changes how it is perceived. Why should artists not have any control over this? If any schmo could go to the museum and take pictures of their work, the artists and their families would have no control. It's important to note that the restrictions on artist copywrites expire after a certain number of years, that's why some work is reproduced ad infinitum and ad nauseum (Caspar David Friedrich's, for example)

Anonymous said...
June 21, 2006 at 12:17 AM

Also, if you really were a critic and wanted images of a piece in the show for an article all you'd have to do is call the curator at the museum. They'd get you an image, if that action was cleared by the artist. As a museum goer you have a right to experience the piece, not own a reproduction of it for free. Sorry, but it's the same at the movies, and with most books. The fact that you couldn't xerox text books at a Kinkos for long time attests to this fact. Why should visual artists be the only ones expected to give away their work? It's WORK.

Anonymous said...
June 21, 2006 at 8:55 AM

I have to agree with my anonymous brethren above. The artists and/or their families have every right to maintain the integrity of their copyright. Just because IMA was lax in enforcing this before doesn't mean life has given you an unfair turn.

This ban should apply to all photographic reproduction, regardless of resolution.


Scott said...
June 21, 2006 at 9:12 AM

Maintaining the integrity to your copyright when dealing with cases where someone is making a profit off your images, is why we have copyright laws. I am for this. My point is in the free use of an image for personal use, a momento. Imagine a governmental ban on photographing the Grand Canyon, because if you take your own images you will not buy the ones at the gift shops, and for the economies sake we must have the gift shops flurish. I know that, that statement is silly and not quite on point but there is something to it.

First Anonymous mentions both films and books. Both of which are presented to the public in an affordable manner. You may buy a dvd or book for around $20. A one of a kind image at a museum may be thousands if not millions of dollars. So, if you wanted a third rate way to remember a particular piece you should be able to photograph it for personal use. If the museum offers postcard images of the work or some other form of image of that piece to the public then that is fine too.

It is interesting that you mentioned Rothko, perhaps the king of the most unphotographable art works. To see only a book of Rothko's work is to never have seen a Rothko.

I never would advocate people making a profit off other peoples images. How can it possibly hurt an artist to let someone have a picture of his work hanging in some other artists studio for inspiration?

Anonymous said...
June 21, 2006 at 9:31 AM

Scott, you ask "How can it possibly hurt?".

The answer lies in a simple truth: If I say you can have a photographic momento of my work, you can. If I say you can't, then please respect my wishes.

That's why there are Estate Laws, they're in place to respect the wishes of the person who created the works in the first place. As well, many pieces of art are very vulnerable to light and if allowed, tourists and other well-meaning folks would be flashing away (even though it's the worst way to shoot art) for years with hot lights for future generations to see a faded, pastel "mona lisa".

Would you be happy if someone chipped a small piece of your drywall paintings off for souvenirs? Month after month, till only a sliver was left?

As well, just because YOU won't profit from the art, it doesn't mean that the next guy won't. T-shirts, mugs, and worst of all: publishing houses. They take images of works from us all via the web and have asian knock-offs done for mass markets. Next thing you know, there's Kyle Ragsdale-ish prints in decorator frames at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Why buy a Ragsdale when I can get something close for $39.95?

Why should artists get special photo priveledges? In the age of the internet, almost all artists have images online, if you wanted something you could easily download a low-res version of it.

I'm sorry, but your position strikes me as incredibly naive.

Anonymous said...
June 21, 2006 at 4:46 PM

Anonymous above summed it up very nicely. I would only add that I find it odd that Scott feels somehow entitled to his own personal copy of a someone else's work.


Scott said...
June 21, 2006 at 11:46 PM

Wow, I really am a bit shocked that you two don't see my side of this. In that I guess I am naive. Part of my point comes down to the fact that Museums are public institutions and there for open to the general public. Should you not be allowed to take a picture of a large public sculpture in a park because the artists says you can't? Should people be worried of facing copyright theft charges if the photograph a Frank Lloyd Wright house? What makes art different from architecture when it comes down to copyrights? If an artist decides to show there work in a public space, be it indoors or outdoors there should be some understanding that the work for that period is public property and open to having its picture taken.

Again, I am NOT for people making a profit off the image of the work, and if they do so or try to do so they should be prosecuted under the copyright laws. I am not against copyright laws by any means but I think the fear of having to deal with lawyers on issues of copyright have caused more museums to stop people from taking pictures. As for the use of flash cameras, I think those too should be prevented from being used in a museum, though when it comes to outdoor works, flash away.

I don't think for me it is about entitlement, and owning a snapshot of someones work is FAR from owning a personal copy of their work, but as an artist it is about personal education and inspiration. What artist doesn't have images of other artists work around their studio? Yes, when it is available online, or on a postcard, or in a catalog, then I have no complaints. The image is available to the public in some way.

Say you have a gallery show, and some well known critic walks in, likes your work, takes a picture of their favorite piece in the show, writes a great review of your show, and publishes the review and picture in a national art magazine. You would send the lawyers after him for copyright issues?

I look forward to seeing where this goes from here.

Anonymous said...
June 22, 2006 at 1:08 AM

Speaking specifically of 2-d works here which are easily reproduced in 2-d formats (lets not mix apples and oranges):

Galleries of professional status have a press package available for critics which contain some represenation of the show "in toto" or sample shots (digital or otherwise) with other info.

Critics of professional status would never walk in and photograph their favorite piece. That just simply doesn't happen and would make them look somewhat silly. More likely, they would inquire as to how to get an image of a piece if possible.

There should most definitely NOT be an understanding that an artist's work is there to be photographed. Viewed yes. Possibly bought, perhaps. But photographed? Doubtful.

I once witnessed a gallery owner throwing out a man who was taking digital shots of EVERY SINGLE piece in a show. The owner had every right to throw him out, it is not only in bad taste, it's disturbing to the atmosphere of the exhibit and interrupts others' coexistance with the work as a whole.

This ill-conceived concept of yours goes above and beyond the question of profits and copyrights. Artists have the basic right to control how their work is seen. There are too many instances where someone else could show the work at a disadvantage because of poor photography or lighting, bad printing, etc. It's simply not fair to the artist or the work. Usually a catalog of works, a postcard or book has been carefully controlled and color corrected with input from either the artist or someone with a good grasp of what the artist's work looks like. And, most importantly, permissions have been granted by the artist.

As to architectural and sculptural works, the differences are obvious. They cannot be reproduced short of actually building the structure or casting a fake. Photographs have far less potential for doing these types of work either justice (repro) or injustice.

Scott said...
June 22, 2006 at 8:06 AM

I agree that my critic scenario is highly unlikely, and I do understand that most professional galleries have press packets for the public and will often work with a critic to get other images if needed. Fair enough. But not all galleries are professionaly run. Too often I come across situations where galleries have no digital images available of works in there show, but again, if asked they too might get around to getting some if they knew a review was coming.

I am not advocating in any way that we not respect the rights of the artists. Please do not read that into what I am writing. Whenever I have been told that pictures were not allowed I stopped and asked about other options for getting an image. And if the gallery owner you spoke of told the man taking photos to please stop and the photopgrapher refused then he should be kicked out. I again agree with you on that scenario.

"There are too many instances where someone else could show the work at a disadvantage because of poor photography or lighting, bad printing, etc. It's simply not fair to the artist or the work."

Too many instances? When is this happening? I have never gone to an art show and seen a fake copy of an artists work on display. The closest thing I can think of in this regard is a recent show in Chicago, advertised as a Caravaggio painting show, where in fact not a single painting was shown but to scale transparencies in lightboxs of his works were shown. Now that was just stupid. First off, again, because it was misrepresented to the public and once again for the record, you can not photograph a painting and show it and fool anyone that it is in fact the actual painting. Well I will leave that door open slightly for photorealist work. But only slightly. I have doubts, that shows of copyies of artists works actually take place.

As for seperating sculptors, architechts, photographers, and painters, why? If they all do not want pictures taken of their stuff shouldn't we just be obiedient? Copyright is copyright after all. I guess I think artists should just be more open and trusting with the public when it comes to their work. If the artist gets burned and people try and make copys for profit, then go after them with the lawyers. I have a tendency to want to trust the public and would like more people to see the work. Already the cost of art prevents most people from owning an actual piece of art at least we as artists should not be worried if someone who loves our work but can't afford to own a piece to still have something to look at as a reminder. Thats just me. I guess I am just more trusting of people than some. Fair enough.

Christopher said...
June 22, 2006 at 10:24 AM

I still agree with Scott. Someone who is going to take a snap shot of a piece, try to reproduce and enlarge so they can live with it, would not pay the asking price of the original work in the first place. If they take that image, and throw it on coffee cups and t-shirts to make a profit, there are legal safe-guards in place to prevent this from happening or compensate the artist if it does. The reality is there are two different sets of people, those that truly appreciate the work and understand the creative process and want to support it, and those that try to take advantage of it. I don't believe there is much cross-over between the two groups.

There have been a couple shows recently in NY in which some of these questions were raised. I mentioned it briefly before, but Triple Candie has done two of these shows in the past few months. The first was 'David Hammons: The Unauthorized Retrospective' where the entire exhibition was taken from catalogs or images right off of the web without Mr. Hammons hand involved at all. They followed that up with 'Cady Noland Approximately' in which a handful of artists (some of which remained anonymous) recreated Cady Noland's work and too displayed it as a mini retrospective. This too raises all kinds of questions regarding appropriation, the curator as artist, copyrights, etc. that could open up an entirely new can of worms.

I don't mind policies in place and if something is going on the distracts from others viewing experience, it shouldn't be allowed. But if we all have an open dialogue I think a lot of these issues can be avoided.

casey said...
June 22, 2006 at 6:33 PM

Dear Scott,
I think you are missing the point. The real issue is that when a photo is taken of an artwork it steals it's soul.


Christopher said...
June 22, 2006 at 9:20 PM

That was funny Casey.

Anonymous said...
June 22, 2006 at 11:34 PM

i agree with the last anonymouses thoughts entirely.

artist man makes a painting and someone shoots a good quality picture of it and enlarges it and enjoys it for years and years.

but poor lil' artist never sells the original cause it's so easy to take pictures ya know and then the happy painting sits in a closet and artist is all sad and cries and starves and has to weave newspapers for clothing and dig up grubs for food.

gee... i guess the guy that took the picture and is loving life got away with something really weasely and feels really good about hisself. what a guy, that guy.

what did the insignificant artist get for his hard work?


Now, magnify this by 100 percent.

Christopher said...
June 23, 2006 at 12:20 AM

Now look at it this way... scroll down a few posts to the image by Keith Clark (I have no idea how to do links in the comment section - sorry) of the woman's waist/butt before a white interior. I used this image with the permission of the artist by the way. Someone could easily take that image and print it out and frame it and hang it on their wall. It's a great photograph that I think anyone would love to have.

Do you really think that the person who would do that would actually pay for the original? I don't believe so. And they couldn't resell it because it has no provenance. And if they tried to add it to commercial items and sell it, the artist could sue and make more from the settlement then they ever could have by selling the original.

There's a system in place. It includes galleries and auction houses and the majority are not going to touch works where they can't insure their authenticity.

I am however selling a lovely photograph I've entitled 'Water Lillies' that I snapped with my camera phone. There's a couple of people standing in the way obscuring the view but you really do get the idea of what the artist was trying to do. Just send me a check for $30 and I'll send you a copy.

confused said...
June 23, 2006 at 7:57 AM

"I used this image with the permission of the artist by the way."

So it does matter?

"Do you really think that the person who would do that would actually pay for the original? I don't believe so. And they couldn't resell it because it has no provenance. And if they tried to add it to commercial items and sell it, the artist could sue and make more from the settlement then they ever could have by selling the original."

So it doesn't matter?

Christopher said...
June 23, 2006 at 9:31 AM

The point is, whether it's in a museum, in a gallery or on the web, these images are everywhere and easy to pirate. If this was such an issue, why aren't we seeing more fakes? The artmarket is hotter than ever. According to, last month new auction highs were set by more than 1650 artists. If ever there was going to be a time when someone would try to take advantage of all the money being tossed around, it would be now. And I just don't see that happening.

Christopher said...
June 23, 2006 at 9:34 AM

...but do remember, don't pull a Robert Indiana. Copyright your work.

Anonymous said...
June 23, 2006 at 9:39 AM

christopher, your comment focuses on the perpetrator instead of the artist whose wishes are not respected.

it doesn't matter whether or not the guy can sell what he took a picture of. he still gets to enjoy the picture at the expense of the artist who gets nothing in return.

perhaps the guy couldn't afford the original and would have never bought it. but, instead, he "stole" it and in many cases - especially among new or emerging artists - the artist still never sold the original.

so, it's all about the viewer's wants but not about the artist's loss? i don't mind someone viewing my work but i do get a little peeved when someone takes a photo and prints it out, especially when i have very affordable framed prints available for those who can't afford an original.

and, yes, it would be pretty easy to take a very high quality picture of work in an uncrowded gallery during the middle of the week with a digital SLR with good lenses.

i'm not saying this happens a lot but it does happen on occasion.

as well, you're asking the artist who is barely making a living to get lawyers and sue someone. the burden of proof is on the artist and that takes a great deal of money, moreso than he would have made from the sale of the work. and the resulting case may or may not go in his favor. lawyers do not accept copyright suits on contingency.

your comments make it seem as if artists have an unending supply of money. if that were true, we wouldn't try and control how our work is viewed. since for the most part we are not wealthy, we have to try and control the usage of our work so that we MIGHT profit from it somehow in order to survive.

another anonymous said...
June 23, 2006 at 11:33 AM

A couple of other admittedly dated technologies are available to the general public and artists alike for capturing that beloved image or object. You could sketch it or just remember it.

These certainly can serve as well as souvenirs.

Anonymous said...
June 23, 2006 at 11:35 AM

Is Scott's argument that because someone can't cough up the dough they are entitled to some other form of ownership?

Scott said...
June 23, 2006 at 3:44 PM

If I do a drawing of a drawing that is in a museum or gallery, does that make me a forger?

On the notion of the starving artist who can not sell their work, is much older than photography, so I see there is no argument there that do to people having some sort of copy of a work is preventing them from selling the original.

Some artists make as little as a dozen paintings a year, and may still have hundreds of buyers lined up. Would making the images available to the public prevent the sales of that painting, or even make the painting less good or important? I think NO. Owning original art is something many people love, what we as artists are constantly looking for in our patrons. These people want to own the original and they know that a copy is not the same thing or not passable for the original. So why be greedy of photographs of your work to the other masses that can not or will never be able to buy your original work. To be so elitist about the control of your images from poorer admirers seems to me wrong. I will always respect the wishes of the artist when their wishes are known, but that does not mean I have to agree with their reasoning. I find it greedy to deny the public something that I have already willingly shown to them. If the artist offers truely affordable print outs (as anonymous above has mentioned) of their work then again that is fair to me, that shows that they are willing to let a broader audience to view their work than just the rich elite.

And no, ONCE AGAIN, my argument is not about "ENTITLEMENT". My concern is about the over use of this copyright distress. It just seems to me from this discussion that some artists out there are acting more like corporations, worried about what could or may happen. Where are the actual accounts of how local artists have been used in such ways that they feel this way? Or are you just being extra cautious?

I am actually finding this discussion enlightening, because I truely did not foresee this much debate on this issue from artists, rather I expected it more from gallery owners who represent artists and from museum staff members. Guess I was wrong there...

another anonymous said...
June 23, 2006 at 4:34 PM

But photos, especially bad ones, do not allow the viewer to experience the work, only a weak facsimile of it. One may go so far as to say, photography can misrepresent the art work.

Malraux's Museum without Walls concept taken into consideration here, it is fine to have a faux gallery of faux art for personal enyjoyment but ownership is not connoisseurship.

Also, the idea that one must be "rich elite" to own original art is a horrible and ill-informed cliche, just not true. Why overstate the case so?

I find all of this so out of character with the majority of blogs on this site, a site that concerns itself largely with marketplace and not aesthetics.

Anonymous said...
June 23, 2006 at 5:15 PM

So, if an artist doesn't agree with you that artist is greedy, and elitist?

Is this really about your desire for ready access to images for your blog?

Scott said...
June 23, 2006 at 5:54 PM

I own art, I must be rich and elite. haha, I know that was a silly statement sorry. I was in a strange zone when typing that one. It was a sad way to illustrate my point.


I am not saying that because you disagree with me that you are greedy and elitist, I hope that is not how that statement is being read. Let me try and restate a bit more. I keep reading into what people are saying is that they want the control over how the public sees their work at all times and if you want to see their work you either have to have gone to see the exhibition or be able to pay for the image. In my mind that kind of overall strictness seems, at least on the surface, greedy to some extent. Of course, as an artist I want to control the exhibition as much as I can, be it proper lighting, how the work is hung, what it is hung around. And no, I don't care if people take pictures of my work as long as they are not trying to make money of of it. (who would want to take pictures of my work anyways? haha) I always thought that artists would like the largest possible audience they can get. I would love people from around the globe to be able to see my work. I figure the more people that get a chance to see a bit of what I do the better my chances of finding people that will come to my shows and see the work in person. And from that I may make more money. I see now that I was wrong that most artists would want the same thing. There are numerous art shows that go on around the globe that most of us will never be able to see. Even if they are our favorite artists. I just thought that most artists wouldn't mind if people were able to get a taste of what that work may actually look like via photos or digital images. And, I guess my use of the word "elitist" was a bit of the devils advocate thrown in. But can it be seen as elitist to want to demand so much control over your images of your work. Never mind, I think I kow your answers. I guess we just don't agree and that is fine. I am sure that now when I go into more galleries around town I will start seeing big signs saying please please no picture taking allowed. And yes, I will abide by your wishes and hope all others do as well.

Anonymous said...
June 23, 2006 at 7:28 PM

Firstly, to clarify, paintings really are not mere images. You must know this. Treating them as images reduces the effect and meaning, dilutes and lessens the experience of veiwing them. Advertising is more about "images". Surface and technique do influence the perception and meaning, nuance painting. I don't believe the issue is one of mere control based on this discernment.

Then again, I do understand the desire to have as many people as possilbe see one's work and to attempt to reach a viable buying public thereby. I would temper that with elist or not art seems to be of fairly marginal interest to a majority of Americans. I do not feel that the value of art is in any way compromised by the fact that it has a relatively smaller audience than the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Stephen King writes books not literature. Does it really matter? Only if you read for a love of language and don't mind a challenge, the King is best left to mass market. If numbers were all that mattered King would be the greastest wrtier in history. I'd feel even more like an alien were it true.

Scott said...
June 23, 2006 at 11:39 PM

I agree completely with everything you just said.

Liriodendron said...
June 24, 2006 at 9:43 AM

This issue was why I haven't written a June review (are you getting some? Can we read them before the shows come down?)...I feel strange just taking a picture on my own....I'm sure the gallery I had in mind wouldn't like it....unless I asked permission and told them I was thinking of writing a review, but then I'd feel obligation, and perhaps a little, I've stalled out.

Scott said...
June 25, 2006 at 10:32 AM


So far no one has contacted me with reviews they would like to have posted as part of our June Review Writing Experiment. I just went and caught up on a couple shows recently and will try and get a couple reviews up in the next day or so. If you wanted to go and write a review personally then please do. If you want me to get the images for you, just let me know and I will work on getting the image from the shows curator. Just email me at with the review and the where the image is and what you want an image of. Does that gallery have a webpage with any available images advertising that show?

Liriodendron said...
June 27, 2006 at 10:30 PM

Well...It's getting pretty late in the month now...I probably couldn't get it all done at this point, but I might send you one in July, and you can do with it what you wish. Thanks. :)
I guess people aren't dying to reveiw art shows here...wonder why? Too busy I suppose....

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