Museum Art Photography

Some people look down on photographs that are merely pictures of other people’s art. This may seem a reasonable point of view, but like any other tenant of artistic evaluation it’s not necessarily fair. In the following paragraphs I will give you some ideas of how you might incorporate photographs of museum art into a portion of your portfolio.

A curator for a museum, famous or obscure, is faced with certain limitations. One limitation is history. He or she has to have a minor if not major collection of historical interest, or the collection is at risk of being deemed irrelevant. This tends to compromise aesthetic value for the sake of historical value.

Another consideration is cost. Not every museum can afford to spend $75 million for a Picasso. In fact, if you’re a curator with a $75 million budget, you would probably spend it on a wide variety of lower value art rather than one Picasso. So just like a private individual, a curator cannot always have what he or she wants but must compromise due to cost.

By photographing just certain art in a particular museum (cherry picking), you can acquire a collection with high aesthetic appeal and leave out the riffraff of historical interest or low value. Or if you’re an art historian, you can do the opposite.

Condition is another consideration. Paintings accumulates a patina of various elements from the atmosphere over time. That time is shorter in the tropic zone than in the temperate zone. A painting acquired by a museum may not be in prime condition. That means its colors and allure are clouded with the grunge of decades, maybe centuries. And the museum may not be able to afford to restore it.

Restoration is important for aesthetics. Large museums restore their most valuable paintings periodically. That might be every 50 years, every 100 years, or every 250 years. A restoration can be very expensive costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Small museums can’t afford them often, and even large museums can only afford them for a portion of their collections.

By using Photoshop adroitly, you can restore art via a photograph to its original allure in many cases, and you can often do it quickly with a minimal effort. Thus, with some postprocessing, you can improve museum art for your own collection.


This example of digital restoration was done in less than two minutes in Photoshop. It’s not perfect because it has some inherent restoration problems. But with a half-hour of work in Photoshop, it could be significantly higher quality while keeping the artistic integrity intact.

In addition, it’s sad to say (and most people may disagree with me) that many original paintings and prints by great artists have less aesthetic value than their reproductions. It doesn’t matter whether the reproductions are color prints or digital media. If you’ve ever visited an art museum shop and viewed the posters and books, you know what I mean.

Another issue is lighting. Lighting in museums is always a big problem and is never perfect. Paintings reflect light in strange and often undesirable ways that apparently cannot be corrected. And where you stand in relation to the art also determines how you see it. Reflections are a major problem. Indeed, a painting that appears superb in one museum or one museum room if moved to another may show in a less appealing way.

If you can photograph art without the ambient reflections, you can acquire a personal art collection that’s an improvement over what people see in the museum. This is very difficult to do, however, and sometimes impossible without the cooperation of the museum.

Beyond photographing art there is the particular activity of photographing portions of other people’s art and incorporating such portions into artistic creations of your own. A painting or sculpture seems to be a self-contained entity that one would not have an inclination to break up into portions for use in another artistic creation. But not all art is necessarily self-contained. For instance, a portion of a sculpture that’s part of antique fireplace mantle might be exactly what you need to display on a metal print by itself or incorporate into some type of other artistic creation such as a poster, advertisement, or collage.

I have used this photograph (part of an antique mantle) in a poster.

All things considered, photographing paintings, prints, and other works of art has many practical uses and can even be profitable. Here are a few ideas:

  • Curate your own wonderful collection (digital)
  • Make accurate prints
  • Make altered prints (e.g., restoration)
  • Use in another artistic creation
  • Use for illustration (e.g., in text)
  • Use in posters
  • Incorporate into everyday artifacts (e.g., business cards)
  • Sell some of the above

For fun, I’ve used the following museum portraits as my personal photograph in Facebook from time to time:

Through careful selection I found several works of art that show a close resemblance to me.

Fortunately, most museums permit photographing. Unfortunately, modern art is copyrighted going back to the 1930s. So, you have to be careful what you photograph and how you use it. You don’t want to violate a copyright. Nonetheless, if the museum owns the copyright and allows photographs, you’re probably safe.

But what about artists? What might they think about people photographing their art without compensation to them? Well, Rembrandt painted pictures that he knew would only be viewed in a patron’s home. At best his art might be on view in some public building, where several thousand people at most might see it over the decades. How would Rembrandt feel if he knew that one day two billion people would view and enjoy his art in the privacy of their own smart phones, tablets, or computers. I for one will speculate that he would likely feel much more fulfilled as an artist than he was in his own time knocking out aesthetic knickknacks for the rich.

Photographing paintings, prints, and even sculpture in a museum is a learned craft, not a happenstance snapshot. That is, it does take some skill. And oddly enough, your photographs of other people’s art are copyrightable. There dozens of ways to take photographs of other people’s art, and therefore the method you use and the resulting product is copyrightable. The law recognizes that photographing art is not necessarily a copycat endeavor.

So, photographing art in museums as well as art in other places in the physical world is a perfectly legitimate photographic endeavor whether used for one’s own collection, to share with friends and family, to create additional art, or to make a profit.

A stained glass window in the Louvre, one of my favorites. Backlit stained glass almost always makes an attractive photo.

Author: Joseph T. Sinclair

Photographer since 1950.

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