We’re museums. We live on context. The who, what, where, when? What came before? What came after? What will come next? Metadata and copyright notices and accession numbers, all ensuring that objects and records and permissions and ownership stay linked.
It’s a big jump to throw all that out the window.
But what if we did work with just the detail: No image of the whole work. No culture, context, or creators listed. Just a single excerpt, perhaps unrecognizable in isolation.
There is this fascination with the cropped image. With the macro, with the revelation of the unfamiliar hiding inside the familiar. Detail images have this sense of discovery: the rewards of careful scrutiny or that flash of recognition that lets you serendipitously discover what (it seems) everyone else is overlooking.
As a museum visitor, this is the most frustrating part of no photography policies. Even if there is a postcard or online image of the very work that I wanted, it’s not the photograph that I would have taken. The wrong angle on a sculpture, an overview image which excludes the small detail in the corner.
I have hundreds of photographs of the corners of paintings, upshots of sculptures, and hidden mechanisms of clocks stored on my computer. And, upon reflection, these are the images that I’m most compelled to share. Moreover, this sharing often happens in identity-driven ways: on social media, frequently as cover photos on Facebook.
These images are different from type of museum photography that we often bemoan: masterwork – snap – masterwork – snap – masterwork – snap. They are not a record of being in the presence of an object. They’re a record of really truly seeing that object.
An image of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles? You can find that online, taken with a much better camera than mine. But is there a picture of the grumpy little faces which embellish the brackets for the curtain tie-backs?
I’m not alone in this impulse: Look through Instagram for the fleeting sunsets, feet on the beach, rainbows created by cut glass windows and captured on iPhones around the country.
What do these mean in museums. Well, here’s a small selection of just a few that I’ve captured in the past year, in museums alone.
What would it mean to ask visitors to capture images like this and share them with us?
Well, first, let’s consider the capturing of that photo. The process demands a closer engagement with the object: time invested, close looking, judicious scrutiny. The photograph is also an act of creation, requiring visitors to make decision about composition and framing. The result is an immediate, side by side comparison of the true object in front of you and the photograph acquired, of the inherent contrast between the artists’ choices and your own.
Just look at the difference between these images? What questions do the details raise? What thoughts do they provoke? What do they highlight about the artist or the photographer?
Second, let’s consider the act of viewing these details, in aggregate, divorced from their original objects. My mock-up not-so-coincidentally resembles the Tate’s #MeetTateBritain screen, which aggregates visitor-generated photos submitted over Twitter.
Looking at my detail images together, I start to see patterns both in the objects and the photography. Circles and strong diagonals recur in very different settings and applications. There’s a fascination with the half hidden, things popping out from corners, doors, or windows. There’s a lot of gold, light, and texture captured in very different ways.
What’s the experience of seeing these images, generated by other visitors, for a visitor to the gallery? I think it’s an invitation to look closer. To take time, look close, maybe bend over or tilt your head to see an object differently. It’s an unabashed assertion that the museum is a place full of easter eggs, hidden gems to be found. And, in my opinion, its an inherently egalitarian statement. It validates purely visual exploration as a valid way of experiencing with the museum, requiring none of the art historical canon or subject-specific expertise.
The experience would have its inherent frustrations, with no recourse to ask “What on earth is that?!” or “Where do I go to see that?” … but is that frustration worth it for the provocation that a #JustTheDetails campaign could provoke?