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Flash photography harms art is one of those “eternal truths” interwoven in the public knowledge to such an extent that (almost) nobody would ever think of checking this. We see the “No flash photography!” sign everywhere, in art galleries, museums, businesses. Museum guards and curators will kindly – but resolutely –  remind us of the prohibition whenever we ignore it, but can flash photography really harm art?

Dr. Martin H. Evans, a British historian, did a thorough research on the subject. According to Evans, “For several decades it has been widely believed that the intense illumination from photographic flashguns will damage delicate art and documents.”

What kept the idea alive was the belief that “The brightness of the peak intensity of the flash and uncertainty about ultraviolet (UV) energy frightened curators, and soon there was general agreement that use of these electronic flashguns should not be permitted in museums and fine art galleries.”

Dr. Evans reviewed the literature and found a study carried out by the London National Gallery in 1995. It showed that frequent flashes could indeed alter the colors in test pigments. This experiment became the strongest justification for photo prohibitions. However, when Evans reviewed the study data, he found something completely different.

Two powerful electronic flashes were used in the experiment. The experimenters removed the UV filter from one of the flashes to get the maximum UV output. They placed each flash about three feet from panels of colored pigments and dyed fabrics. A similar panel was set up under the “standard gallery lighting” as a control sample. The flashes were then shot every seven seconds for several months.

After more than a million flashes, the pigments and dyes exposed to the naked flash did show a minor, but visible, fading in a few samples. The samples exposed to the glass filtered flash showed no visible change. Dr. Evans concluded that: “In the vast majority of pigments there was no more change from UV-filtered flash than from the same quantity of gallery lighting (the control). When there was no UV filter the change was about 10-15% greater than from the equivalent quantity of gallery light.”

It appears that curators and experts simply talked themselves into believing that flash photography is harmful, despite the irony that we are not even allowed to shoot photos of Egyptian relics that have survived thousands of years under the UV light of desert sunlight.

However, there are other, more real reasons for photo prohibition – in large and crowded museums and galleries this ban keeps people moving so more visitors can actually see the exhibits. Gift shop sales are another good reason – most museums and galleries earn a lot from the sale of postcards, posters and other memorabilia. If people were allowed to take their own photographs, they would probably leave less money at a gift shop. Some people also point to the security aspect, claiming that photo ban is one of the ways to stop criminal activity.

At any rate, we may be sure that the flash photography does not harm artwork, but it will have little to no effect on the galleries and museums.


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