John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Photos taken in museums

(return to the article "Museum Shoots")

taking photos in museums

Two in One

When photogaphing in a musuem, find interesting ways to get works of art to interact with each other. Discover the ideas the designers of the exhibit had in mind. Also see if you can find viewpoints that they might not have considered. We tend to think in terms of looking at art from a standing position, but don't let that mental set limit your experimenting with other points of view. Investigate different ways to juxtapose, join, overlap, and integrate the artwork. Try looking:

next to
from inside
from outside
from below
from above
from the other side

… and any combination of these and other viewpoints. How might these different camera angles add your own creative interpretation to the synthesis of art?

taking photos in musuems

Up close and personal

If you move in for a close-up shot of artwork, you'll start to notice things you didn't from a distance. You'll see the small details created by the artist. If you zoom in even further, you'll witness the precise creative techniques the artist used: fine details, brushstrokes, textures, minute blendings of colors, interwoven parts.

Think of this process as reversing the most basic Gestalt principle about perception: you're leaving the whole that is different or greater than the sum of its parts, and entering into those individual parts. At some extreme point of zooming in, your resulting shot might not look anything like the original whole work of art. It becomes an abstraction. Keep in mind that you're most likely disassembling the original composition of the artist. Do so with care, ideally with your own idea for creating a different kind of composition.

taking photos in musuems

Observing observers of art

Sometimes the people at the show become an important part of the show. Notice the different ways people approach, examine, and exit from a work of art. What kinds of people are drawn to a particular piece? How do they interact with other people, if at all? Sometimes you'll notice striking parallels or contrasts between the work of art and the appearance of the person looking at it (the color and style of clothes, body posture, hair, body type). For this photo, I saw the curls of my daughter's hair as echoes of the vine-like shapes in the wall sculpture.

taking pictures in museums

Getting into art!

It's fun to ask your companions to pose in ways that makes it appear as if they are part of the artwork. Photographed from a skewed angle while striking a staged pose, my other daughter seems to drawing on the power of this abstract painting to hypnotize us. While you might take these kinds of photos just for the fun of it, also compose subjects in subtle, unselfconscious, and beautiful ways. Try to immerse people into the art so that their presences adds to the meaning and emotion of the piece.

taking shots in museums

Glass frames and distortions

In this shot I created a triangular composition using the sculpture in the foreground glass case, the woman in the background painting, and a person attending the exhibit. I wanted the different segments of the glass case to serve as boundaries between different kinds of art, as well as between art and observer of art, resulting in a boxes within boxes effect, magnified even more by the choice of a square crop. The distortions created by the glass case, and the way its top edge hides the face of the woman in the painting, creates a somewhat errie feeling, as if this attempt at compartmentalizing art and people doesn't feel quite right.

doing photography in a museum

Art inside art

Similar to the idea of boxes within boxes, this image involves frames within frames. The original work of art is the painting of the man and woman. In Photoshop I inserted the shot I had taken of the painting, which included the ceiling lights of the museum, inside the 90 degree rotated frame of the painting. By doing this I was attempting to create the impression of a photo hanging in a museum - a photo that captures the experience of viewing a painting in the same museum. We are looking at an image of an image of the couple looking at each other... Might we also be inside an image? Is there a photo or painting of us? Might someone be looking at image of us looking at the image of the image of couple looking at each other? This visual play on an infinite regression of "looking" is reinforced by the window in the background of the painting, which looks out onto yet another space in the distance that we can't fully see.

doing photogrqphy in a museum

Joy in repetition

The repetition of the perfectly aligned photos in this musuem caught my eye. In Photoshop, I inverted the photo I had taken, then placed it inside an image of a film strip, giving it the appearance of a negative. I like how the repeating boxes of the film strip echo the line-up of photos at the museum. The line-up of photos also angle outward towards the plane of the film strip, as if the negative of the photos and the photos themselves have become united. Here again we have that idea of images within an image.

photos of photos

Dancing with shadows

The shadows of sculptures can be as fascinating as the sculptures themselves. In this image, both the sculpture and its shadow appear in a rule of thirds position, giving them equal status as points of attention. By offsetting the black background, I wanted to activate that negative space as a way to draw attention to the concept of shadows having a unique substance of their own.


photos of photos


Reflections in glass and other shiny surfaces threaten our attempts to get a clear shot of artwork behind it. Why not turn lemons into lemonade? Introduce glare and reflections as part of the art. You might have to stand close and move around in order to find an interesting camera angle. If you are hoping to include people in the reflection shot, you might be standing there for a while until a good composition appears. Other visitors at the musuem might wonder why you're spending so much time standing so close with your camera aimed into the art, but don't let that bother you. We photographers sometimes do strange things in order to get a shot.

taking photos in musuems

Go with flow

Try panning, spinning, and swirling your camera. Experiment with different shutter speeds. The dreamy, translucent, and fluid qualities of the resulting photo might turn out quite dramatic. In this photo, I like how the panning action creates the feeling of people and art gliding along together.

taking photos in museums

The ideal interactive exhibit for photographers

There’s nothing more exciting than an exhibit that specifically inspires viewers to become part the artwork, while also encouraging photographers to capture this participation of the viewers in the creation of art. An excellent example of this is Michelangelo Pistoletto’s exhibit of paintings of people on mirrors, with large portions of the mirrors being empty, where you can see your and other visitor’s reflections alongside the painted people.

I had a hard time pulling myself away from the seemingly endless variety of shots: photos of viewers inside the mirrors alongside the painted people; photos of people looking into the mirrors where the shot shows them, their reflection, and the painted people; photos of my reflection next to the painted people, taking shots of other viewers inside the mirrors; photos of double reflections in which one mirror painting reflects another mirror painting across the room, with viewers, including myself, looking into and being part of the paintings.

It was a photographic wonderland of mind-boggling possibilities for exploring dimensions of space, the relationship of people to and in art, and for using Pistoletto’s ingenious exhibit as a springboard for creating my own unique photos. As with the more conventional shots of people looking at art, such interactive exhibits challenge you to find those brief “decisive moments” when all the elements of the scene – the viewers, the painted people, the reflections in the mirrors, and you – come together in a beautiful resonance of composition and meaning.


For more examples of photos taken in museums, visit my Art in Art set in Flickr.


Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche