Six years ago, right about this time of year, buffeted by wind and approaching rain, I shivered in the cold while waiting in a queue outside St. Petersburg’s renowned State Hermitage Museum. Unlike most visitors, who checked their coats and bags in the cloakroom, I piled my gear into my backpack, then bypassed the people milling about in the large entrance foyer and made a beeline for the galleries.
Like a kid entering a gigantesque candy store, I was bowled over by the visual feast that greeted me; the sheer immensity, grandeur and lush colors were cotton candy to my eyes. The exquisite silence that echoed in each room, hanging in the folds of heavy window drapes, gave me a taste of what it might have been like to live inside these quarters centuries ago. Even the elderly docent, her purple-tinted hair coiffed just so, tip-toed beside me, as if wary of making a sound.
Then the shuffling of rubber soles and click-clack of approaching high heels brought me back to reality, reminding me that tourists were on the loose nearby. Like a herd of horses, they came barreling into the gallery. I stood back from the hordes, anticipating mayhem – and blocked views of the paintings.
But I needn’t have worried. These ‘check-list’ tourists, digital camera ready in hand, were short on time – and long on lenses. Literally. Lenses of all kinds dangling from their bags, shoulders and backpacks.
One by one, they would stop – more like skid – in front of a painting, long enough only to read the title and determine whether the artwork was created by a ‘famous artist.’ If so, they would call out to their co-tourist friends, snap a shot of the painting in question and in seconds, scurry off to the next piece. The painting had barely registered a blip on their eyeball – and already they were off.. to the races. Renoir! Matisse! Oh look here! They dashed between one painting to the next, from one gallery to the other, capturing in the space of a nano-second viewing, nothing more than a photographic record of the paintings that hung on the wall.
It was an astonishing sight. What was the point?
I was reminded of that bizarre experience in wind-swept Russia just the other day when I went to see the World Press Photo exhibit in Old Montreal. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the exquisite moments of life, war, death, birth and the human experience that photographers around the world have captured over the past year. The images never fail to enlighten, surprise, inform, sadden, and amaze me. I can stand in front of a single photograph for fifteen minutes (if it were possible to do so), or circle back to it later; observing, imagining, trying to recreate the bigger story of what happened just before – or possibly right after, the image was taken.
The photos drip with joy, agony, ecstasy, terror and love. How can one not be frozen in place, at the very least for a few moments, captivated by the single slice of human emotion or landscape?
When I entered the large hall in the Marché Bonsecours, the place was abuzz. A quick glance around confirmed that a school field trip was underway; a large gaggle of uniformed private-school teenage girls were huddling, chatting, squealing and generally acting like teenagers do.
But then I noticed the St Petersburg Phenomenon – with a twist. Instead of digital cameras at the ready, each one of these girls had their smartphones in hand. And, as if they were on a school photography assignment (which, perhaps, they were), they snapped away.. one photograph or detail or label after the other. They didn’t look up – or at – the photograph itself, but only at the image they were trying to capture through their phone.
I stood back and watched the girls for awhile, both amused and stumped.
And then I remembered how, when I was a little girl and my sisters and I would visit a museum, it was a quiet affair. No sounds of digital doodads, no photographs being taken of photographs, no selfies, no Instagrams. We just walked around, stopped and looked at the art. What remained was that which was etched into our brains and visual memories… not onto our memory cards.