#655. At the museum

By Steffen Kamprath | Opinion

Oct 12

Every once in a while I stumble upon photos that stick to my mind for a very long time. One of these was in Pascal’s “A tale of two OTI” back in 2015. In particular Philippe’s first image of all the skeletons lined up, looking in one direction. I was fascinated by the colors, the light, the play with depth of field, repeating patterns, and the overall spooky setup of dozens of skeletons, dead animals, built-up true-to-life. Truly remarkable!


Philippe’s masterpiece that stuck in my mind for so long


Than, one and a half year later, my son wanted to go to the Berlin Museum of Natural Science (Naturkundemuseum). And I thought that is a great opportunity to replicate one of these images. Now, “Good artists copy β€” great artists steal” is nothing I fully subscribe but it’s part of a natural learning process. And I’m learning β€” always.

So, off to the museum. And they have this stunning hall of dinosaurs right in the beginning. OK, get in close, use shallow depth of field to blur the distracting background, compose, click …


Dicraeosaurus in Berlin Natural Science Museum


Well, now this is not exactly what Philippe and Pascal achieved in Paris. Why is it? A quick analysis of my situation:

  1. These skeletons are completely differently arranged and there’s no pattern and repetition.
  2. I don’t have light from the side but a large roof window.
  3. I’m not alone in the room but with many, many other visitors.
  4. I don’t have the tools to create this kind beautiful shallow depth of field and bokeh.
  5. Very Important: They didn’t have a 4-year-old at their hands who was dragging them through the exhibition.
  6. And most important: Who am I to copy others work?

So now that my situation was clear, I had to adapt. What is my environment? Dark, available light, and spot lights, individual exhibits, and lot of visitors. I either had to mix both or look for empty corners and focus on details. And I have to be very fast before my son gets bored and force-drags me out of the building. I simply won’t make Pulitzer images today β€” but that’s OK, tomorrow is another day πŸ˜‰ How would I approach the scene without Pascal’s and Philippe’s images in my mind? Release … Move on!


Tristan in an exhibition from Naturkundemuseum Berlin

Face to face with a killer


Yes, now we’re talking! A little tightly cropped (I was already backing up against the next exhibit and just had a 50mm equivalent lens) and, yes, the surface reflections … and blurry … But, hey, no Pulitzer today! It’s totally atmospheric to me. Move on, I lost my boy.

Now, a “specialty” of the Berlin Natural Science Museum (I’m not really sure but still …) is his Wet Collection. These are exhibits conversed in alcohol. And the exhibition is set up like an archive with room-high racks, dark lighting and then you have all these creepy, bleached-out creatures inside glass tanks.


Wet Collection in Berlin Museum of Natural Science

Wet Collection in Naturkundemuseum Berlin


But my son pulled me off the room and museum … The end.

Half a year later, we went there again. I now knew what to expect, stuck to the 50 mm FOV but this time with manual focus as it gave me more control, and I’ll take it slow. I explained the world to my boy, pre-visualized the scene, and when he was distracted, I raised the camera and quickly took the shot. Exhibition already changed and I released myself from the obvious exhibits last time and could focus on other things. (Often it’s totally OK to first photograph the obvious, just to release your mind.)


Three birds from Berlin Natural Science Museum

Bird from Museum of Natural Science Berlin

Big cat from Natural Science Museum Berlin


Earlier this year, I have been to the Berlin Asian Art Museum (Museum fΓΌr Asiatische Kunst) β€” alone, yeah! Because this museum is moving to the new Berlin Palace in the city center (yes, we build a brand-new palace because … why not!), they had the last Japanese Tea Ceremony happen on this day.


Japanese Tea Ceremony in Museum of Asian Art Berlin

From Japanese Tea Ceremony in Berlin Asian Art Museum

Japanese Tea Ceremony in Museum fΓΌr Asiatische Kunst, Berlin


The Asian Art Museum is located inside the Ethnological Museum and you can easily switch exhibitions. And because I’ve never been there before β€” and I was alone β€”, I strolled through the African exhibition too (and some others). What I found particular interesting were statues in all sizes, materials, occasions, times, and from all over Africa. The exhibition was quite empty, almost mystical illuminated, and these statues, dolls, and puppets mostly had a menacing effect on me. So I created a nightmarish “portrait” series, called Creatures of Horror … huuuuh.


Statue from Ethnological Museum Berlin

Statue from Berlin Ethnological Museum

Statue from Ethnologisches Museum Berlin


So, there you have it. How I came from blindly copying to creating my own perspective, and having a lot of fun on the way.

But there’s this philosophical question for the end: Is photographing at museums (or any exhibitions) an act of own creativity or just documentary or just plain stealing? Copyright says it’s stealing. My take is that when you photograph one or more exhibits in the context of exhibition it’s documentary. But when you crop-in and pull it extremely out of the existing context, it can become a own statement, an own piece of art.


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  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    First I get chased by a pack of wolves(?), then I am confronted by a skull asking who the h*** I think I am coming there to stare at them, “Go look at yourself in a mirror!”.
    And suddenly I find myself lost in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari…
    But the Tea Ceremony helped me keep my feet on the ground.
    …looking for an Exit sign, looking … is there one?

    Nice photos!

  • Job Honig says:

    I agree with you remark about making a new statement, new meaning together with new aesthetics. That is, to me, a requirement for something to be called art.

  • Adam Bonn says:

    I’d say documentary, and artfully done in your case!

    I have really fond memories of the London Natural History museum as a child, and went there on a memory lane trip about a year ago

    So I really enjoyed your post Steffen

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I love it, Steffen – the lighting’s appalling, the only competition (usually) is people with cellphones who aim their cams at themselves and treat the exhibits as purely background material, and shooting photos in a place like that is a real challenge. I don’t think our mentor Susan Sontag could possibly suggest that tourists have beaten you to it, and taken a billion photos of these subjects before you.

    And the accompanying text displays a delightful sense of humour. πŸ™‚

    Thanks for sharing with us.

  • Joakim Danielson says:

    “Is photographing at museums (or any exhibitions) an act of own creativity or just documentary or just plain stealing?”

    Might I make an analogy with music and doing a cover in particular, it can be anything from an pale copy to a masterpiece in itself even better than the original. I have never photographed art as an attempt to make it into my own art, only for documentation/memories but the idea is tempting.

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