Art, the Camera, and Memory.

Taking Pictures (Caillebotte) by Nicholas Knight
Taking Pictures (Caillebotte) by Nicholas Knight

“But the King said…’The fact is that [writing] will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves. So it’s not a recipe for memory, but for reminding.'”
-Plato, Phaedrus

I’ve been going to art museums more lately, attending the Hopper retrospective at the Whitney, and more recently, the Magritte retrospective at MoMA. Not having been to many art museums in the last decade, I was surprised to see a behavior familiar from concerts: a seeming greater focus on capturing just the right picture or video than on experiencing the thing being recorded.

Museum patrons would frequently stop to take pictures of the art they saw, sometimes with themselves in the picture, sometimes just the art itself. The experience was previously about contemplatively engaging with the art, often attempting to approach the art as closely as possible (at least in theory). A visit to an art museum seems for many to have become about seeking moments to interpose a camera between the viewer and the viewed. The age of mechanical reproduction made it easier than ever for the public to experience a facsimile of art, but the age of electronic reproduction may make it harder for us to experience the original.

To clarify, my concern here is not generally with mediating the experience. There is certainly a valid path for discussion in that direction, but art is never perceived in its platonic form. The perception of a work is influenced by everything from the lighting to the other patrons, as well as the context into which it has been placed by the curator. Rather, I worry about the “purpose” of being at a museum as it becomes a scavenger hunt, more concerned with acquiring the perfect set of JPGs than with understanding what is seen.

“I don’t keep a travel diary. I did keep a travel diary once and it was a big mistake. All I remember of that trip is what I bothered to write down. Everything else slipped away, as though my mind felt jilted by my reliance on pen and paper. For exactly the same reason I don’t travel with a camera. My holiday becomes the snapshots and anything I forget to record is lost.”
― Alex Garland, The Beach

New research by Linda A. Henkel shows a further problematic dimension to this trend: when patrons use cameras in museums, they are less likely to remember what they see (Alex Garland was apparently a bit prescient when he wrote the above passage in The Beach). Previous research showed how technology could be harnessed for types of transactive memory that had previously been social. The diminished memory of the photographed art and diminished memory of what can be retrieved through a web search are likely two facets of the same phenomenon.

With a shift towards more pervasive life-logging—from Google Glass to Evernote—there may be a risk of having more memories at our fingertips and fewer in our head. This is not inherently negative, particularly if off-loading the cognitive load of some memory storage and retrieval permits more high-level thinking, but it is something that should involve deliberate decision-making with a more complete understanding of the trade-offs.

Perhaps the most significant unresolved question is what happens to the high-level reasoning involved in making novel connections between facts when those facts are not stored in “bio-memory.” Having digitally recorded a Magritte painting concerned with connecting the written word with an object, and knowing that Ong wrote about the disconnect between the written word and an object, how many specifics do I need to know personally to bring these two data points together? Will seeing the Magritte remind me that I need to do the web search to find the relevant Ong passage, or will I fail to make the connection? Just how much memory can be offloaded before it impacts the creation of novel ideas.

Finally, as Sherry Turkle recently discussed in the New York Timesthe taking of the photograph interrupts an experience. Interrupting an experience is not always detrimental, but museums have typically been designed to increase ones focus on the exhibited work.

Attending a museum exhibition with a friend will also lead to its share of interruptions, but such interruptions will typically  focus on what is being immediately experienced. As taking a photograph so often means reaching for the phone (and its embedded camera), the action potentially exposes the photographer to a host of notifications unrelated to the experience. The art in front of the patron becomes one more tab in a figurative browser, with the patron encouraged to multitask between Facebook comments, Instagram “loves,” and tweets. The cognitive costs of this type of multitasking have been well documented and seems detrimental to the deep focus needed to appreciate many works.

All of the above should be taken with one tremendous caveat. Many of the people at the museum do not take pictures of the art. The average museum-goer notoriously spends little time looking at individuals pieces (the Detroit Institute of Art found visitors were spending an average of less than three minutes in a gallery, even after omitting data from any patrons who spent less than a minute in the gallery). Obviously, there is a high standard deviation here, with some people spending considerable time viewing a piece. Are the photographers generally people who would deeply engage with pieces rarely regardless of the camera, or does this cut across styles, with more serious devotees of art creating an inspiration book that undermines their memories and potentially their connections to that which is meant to inspire them?

Are my concerns overblown? Is there research out there relevant to these concerns that I haven’t included here? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Taking Pictures (Caillebotte) captured by Nicholas Knight


    1. Greg

      Having read ‘The Beach,’ I don’t remember the passage you quote but have identified the exact same problem in my life and work. As a writer, I use my camera (phone and DSLR) as visual “notes” often, when working on a story. I shoot a lot to jog my memory later. The disadvantage I’ve found is that, over time, I start to remember *only* the parts of the experience that I photographed, as I look at those photos repeatedly, other parts of the experience fade.

      That said, if I were to *not* take notes or photos and I wish (or need) to write about it later, I have a terrible memory and will forget all of it. So the photo/notes are necessary for me.

      Overall, my response is something like XKCD’s… live and let live. If you want to have a more direct experience with the art or the adventure, and you find photographing or note-taking a distraction, don’t do it. I hope folks who want to photograph, whether for documentation or communication, think about what they are trading for their photography. And I also hope they keep their damn screen out of my way, just as I try to do the same as I incessantly photograph certain experiences.

      • Daniel

        We make a lot of trade-offs without even knowing we’re making them. We might be aware of a distraction, but are unlikely to be as aware if we are trading the memory of something for a photograph of it. I’m uninterested in regulating how others experience art or adventure, but think we need a fuller understanding of what’s being sacrificed and what is being gained. If, with that understanding, a person decides to accept the trade-off, I do not have a problem.

        I also meant the above very narrowly. The focus on art museums was not accidental and I would be reluctant to apply much of what I wrote to other environments. If I want us to better understand the trade-offs, I also want us to understand that few of these types of prescriptions are one-size-fits-all. The most rewarding technique/policy for a house party might be entirely different than the most rewarding technique/policy for an art museum.

        You do raise a good point re: keeping the screen out of the way of others. One of the trade-offs that many people seem to make is temporary heightened focus on the photographed object at the expense of being aware of those around them.

    2. Greg

      Interesting differentiation between museums and other venues/events, and it makes sense. Though I do think trade-offs come anywhere, including a house party where often I see people posing/photographing rather than socializing “organically.” Parties can become big photo shoots, sort of meta events with people acting for the camera like what they think an awesome party looks like on Facebook.

      The important venue/experience in my life is the natural world, and there I see a lot of similarities with the art museum example. As a modern writer and communicator focusing mostly on nature, I am constantly struggling to balance my desire to share the experience – as a means to connect and inspire – with my desire to be present and fully engaged with my surroundings. I end up choosing whether or not to photograph, tweet, etc. very much on a case-by-case basis. Some experiences deserve immediacy, and the experience is not significantly lessened by doing it, while other times I need to turn the phone off, breathe deeply, shut up, and look around. Ideally I then have something to write about when I get home – something longer than 140 characters or a photo. I suppose the same goes for the art museum — maybe someone posting a photograph on their Facebook page of a beautiful piece of art will engage their online friends in discussion about it, or stimulate more people to go see it themselves (and they’ll most likely post a photo when they do).

      I don’t disagree with anything you say here, and it’s good to spark some conversation about the topic because the big question isn’t whether or not people should take photos at art museums, in nature, or anywhere else, but rather that we should think about the trade-offs. I’m willing to bet that a lot of people do already think about this, while the people who don’t were perhaps never getting that much out of art or nature in the first place.

      There is one final aspect of this that’s interesting from my personal experience. I have found that whipping my camera out and taking a photo has become a form of noticing. It’s how I mark a sight or experience that is significant. There, the thought is inseparable from the documentation/communication. It is because something connects with me that I take the photo. As you say in the first paragraph of the post, it seems people in museums put a “greater focus on capturing just the right picture or video than on experiencing the thing being recorded.” I’d be careful about that “seeming,” because it may be that those people are “contemplatively engaging with the art,” and taking a photo is part of their engagement, the outward sign of their inward emotional/intellectual activity.

      On a related note, I’ve always found it funny/sad when people spend half a concert taking crappy photos with their phone when, if it’s a show of any significance, there is a good chance a local publication is reviewing the show and will post photos taken up close with professional gear the next day. A far better way to remember the show, and saving attendees the worry of trying to document it themselves — while distracting and annoying people behind them.

      Lots of thinking while writing here, and at 500+ words I’m going to stop. Not sure I even agree with myself on all this, but it’s a good dialogue.

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