After moving to Oakland in the early 1970s, Nagler started exploring museums, then soon began dabbling in photography himself. Although in those days it was strictly forbidden to take photographs in art museums, Nagler would sneak an occasional picture. After museum regulations eased up, he was free to be less covert.
Using a handheld digital camera, he writes, “I captured the beautiful young girl pausing in front of ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ ... I was hooked.” That initial photograph — of the Picasso painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on the cover of the book — is a perfect example of life imitating art.
“In the back of my mind,” writes Nagler in his illuminating afterword, “I started to make images that I kept in a file I called ‘parallelographs.’ I was always looking for situations where someone would mirror or echo a scene or object behind them.”
One of his earliest images was of a man playing pool at San Francisco’s Beach Chalet with a Works Progress Administration mural behind him. On a whim, Nagler showed the photograph at the 1978 San Francisco Photo Fair, and he unexpectedly won the grand prize.
He was on a roll: A man in a blue floral shirt and baseball cap peering at same-shade-of-blue “Irises” by van Gogh. A little girl sitting below Rodin’s “The Thinker” inadvertently acknowledging the famous pose.
“I looked for the parallels between the viewer and the art on the walls. I had found the perfect balance between my love for observing people and my love for art: the art of looking,” he writes.
Heyday Books publisher Malcolm Margolin offers an astute foreword: “In these astounding encounters between art and viewer, there’s often the feeling of a tryst, a secret meeting of lovers, and each of these ‘lovers’ is amplified and changed by the experience. By echoing the imagery or theme of the artwork, the viewer in the photograph takes on some of the power of the art.”
Still, at the book’s core are Nagler’s respectfully witty, candid images of viewers interacting with classic and contemporary paintings and sculptures. Among major museums represented, many are local, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the de Young Museum, Oakland Museum of California and Stanford’s Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts.
One minor disappointment in this well-produced volume: the year the photograph was taken is missing.
Next time you’re in a museum gallery, this book will remind you to regard another layer: the art of looking at people looking at art.
Looking at Art, The Art of Looking
By Richard Nagler
Published by Heyday Books
Price: $45 (hard cover) $25 (paper)