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[Photos: Annie Dell’Aria]

Ever try to look at a famous piece of art? Like actually look at it, up close? In most instances you have to jostle with densely-packed crowds of onlookers…many of whom are not actually looking at the object they traveled to see, but rather using it as background for digital photography. At paintings like the Mona Lisa, this is particularly evident, as is the compulsion to photograph the painting with no one in it.

Both of these photographic compulsions of art tourists (the selfie and the view) suggest the same thing – to prove that you were there. Obviously an image of a work of art is easily accessible online, and of better quality than your iPad held up over you head, but the impetus to pull out one’s phone, camera, or tablet is still there. Mobile digital photography, especially via phones and uploaded onto social media, presumes the presence of the photographer. An image of unfettered access or proof of one’s physical proximity, digital photography in the museum quite often functions in the same manner as tagging on social media: mediated proof.

But proof of what? Proof of being there. Though these images are certainly subject to the same manner of manipulation as all digital photography, the nature of mobile phone cameras suggests a type of physical, place-bound immediacy. Furthermore, when an image is uploaded onto digital media and “tagged” at a certain location using WiFi or GPS positioning, the locational presentness in relationship to the image is further reinforced.

Digital photography here (as experienced through mobile devices and social media) reinforces rather than degrades the art object’s aura. This term, coined by Walter Benjamin in the first half of the twentieth century, references the cult-object status of the work of art, its “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Mechanical reproduction (photography), for Benjamin, obliterates the art object’s aura by dispersing its image far more democratically than previously imaginable. Though this dispersion of images happens at rates and scales far beyond what Benjamin encountered, photography’s dispersion of images in the case of the museum selfies serves not to obliterate, but to reinscribe the art object’s aura through mediated channels that situate observer, object, and camera within the same “time and space.”

 

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