Photograph by Andrés Wertheim
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Alte Pinakothek, Munich; artist: Lucas Cranach the Elder

Photograph by Andrés Wertheim

Art Walks Off the Walls in These Dreamlike Double Exposures

Photographer Andrés Wertheim creates a fantastical dimension by fusing images of museumgoers with images of the art they're looking at.

Walking up the steps from a bustling city into the reverberant halls of an art museum can feel like a sacred experience. That’s the case for photographer Andrés Wertheim. “Once inside, the sounds of the street disappear, [and] the place becomes a cocoon where one can connect to the cultural legacy of past times,” he says. “I feel like [I’m] accessing a higher experience as a human being.”

It was on just such a trip to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum that he noticed something that sparked his curiosity. “A crowd was standing in front of Rembrandt's 'Night Watch.' Nobody was looking at a great, huge painting hanging in the same room, and I wondered why we are so conditioned through media and tradition to always pay reverence to the same artworks while ignoring others.”

Right then and there he made a picture of the knights in the ignored painting and a picture of the museumgoers who were ignoring it, layered in a double exposure. Through his lens, he forced the public to interact with an artwork they were previously uninterested in.

Creating new scenes that place art and its observers (or ignorers) together in a new, imagined dimension became a passion project for Wertheim, who has always been fascinated by how the public interacts with art in museums. A fascination that started with his own experience many years ago.

“When I was a child I saw ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz,’ a wonderful painting by El Greco. The glances of the languid characters had a hypnotising effect on me, and time seemed to vanish,” he says. “I left the room frightened, as their eyes continued following me.”

His process hasn’t changed much since he took that first photo at the Rijksmuseum. It all happens on site, in camera, and very quickly. “I either begin [by] taking a photograph of an artwork or of the museumgoers. Then I immediately search for its counterpart to meld them,” he explains. “Since situations and light conditions change fast, I have to think creatively on the fly. I primarily allow my intuition to guide me. While I am shooting I feel that my unconscious will mix with the visible reality to find a symbolic meaning.” He’s now carried his technique out in more than ten countries, including India, the Czech Republic, and the United States.

Wertheim hopes his layered photographs will transport people—as he was transported when he saw the El Greco—taking them on “a journey of fantasy, [to] a dreamlike universe where past and present intertwine.”

One observation Wertheim's images make, is that sometimes people at museums are paying as much attention to their devices as to the art on the walls. He hopes that his images help people stop and look a little closer. “For a moment, I try to interrupt the never ending flux of image-watching we are immersed in today. My images may make you look for a second time, searching for overlooked details hidden in the translucent situations.”

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Städel Museum, Frankfurt; artist: Carl Friedrich Lessing

Andrés Wertheim is an Argentina-born photographer based in Germany. See more of his work on his website.

Becky Harlan is an associate photo editor at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.