Guard at Metropolitan Museum—2010

The Story Behind the Photograph...

I first had the idea to photograph in museums back in 1986. Fine art photography folks will undoubtedly think of Thomas Struth and his body of images of people in museums. To be honest, I was unfamiliar with his work until just recently. And while Struth and I both photograph people in museums, I find our work to be entirely different… his work, which is is broadly known in the fine art community, focuses on groups of people in front of or around artwork whereas my work tends to focus on individual interactions with art and, quite often, humor.

In 1987, I took an old (read: barely working) Pentax I had inherited from my grandfather (Julius Kahn) put in a roll of Tri-X film and walked over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I wanted to play, to experiment with an idea I had to create a body of photographs of people interacting with art. What I did, in a matter of hours, was to create what to this day is arguably the single best roll of film of my entire career. The film was processed by a lab that no longer exists called SCOPE and somewhere in my gallery I have the contact sheet. The negatives, however, are lost and have been so for more than a decade.

That roll of film, shot in 1987, was a fluke. It was one of two rolls of film I experimented with back then. I hadn’t touched a camera in years and I didn’t touch an SLR again until 1997. Over the past 14 years, I have ventured back into museums with my camera from time to time. Just this past summer, I went back to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my cameras to see what I could come up with.

I spotted this guard standing in front of the famous Temple of Dendur  - rescued from Southern Egypt, or Nubia, just before the Egyptians built the Aswan dam and flooded a wide swath of historic land and ruins. The guard stood with his arms crossed, solemn faced, in front of this wonderful and ancient temple and I was struck by an incongruence between the young guard, his serious appearance and the ancient temple behind him.

As I moved into position to take the picture, the guard spotted me. There’s nothing that prohibits me from taking a picture in the museum and nothing that prohibits me from taking a picture of the guard. But once he spotted me with my Nikon D3x (read: not small) camera hanging from my neck, he stiffened and kept an eye on me. Any hope of a captured silent moment – or even, perhaps of spontaneity, was lost. I stood in front of the temple for a minute or two as the crowds pulsed in and out of the temple, hoping the guard would shift his attention. No such luck.

I moved on and circled the rather enormous room, chatted with Helen and the kids, snapped a few other pictures and then ventured back toward the guard and my wished for image. The entrance to the temple was now more crowded than ever and tourists then blocked the clean image I had seen but not taken just a few minutes earlier. The good news was that I did a much better job of blending in with the crowd and remained, effectively, invisible to the guard. As I watched, he yawned… as he yawned, I raised my camera and as I did so, he returned his arms to their customary position – crossed – and leaned back. I stifled a laugh just long enough to capture this image.

I took one shot, turned and was walking away with my back to the temple by the time the guard was standing upright. What he didn’t see was the fist-pump I was doing in my mind as I walked back to Helen and the kids… I knew I had captured what for me – at least – was a humorous human moment inside a museum. And that always makes me happy.

 

 

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