If you weren’t comfortable with virtual platforms such as Instagram and Skype to connect before COVID-19, you have no choice now but to jump on the digital bandwagon. In the arts, small teams with limited resources have scrambled to figure out new ways to connect the arts community through conversation rather than a stale picture on a screen. The Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) has been able to deliver, hosting two Zoom events a week—no easy feat—including “Photos at Zoom,” a spin on their program “Photos at Noon,” which was held in-person pre-pandemic. I attended both events and miss the in-person spontaneity of the latter, but also appreciate the easy access and low pressure of the former. It’s been a shift for me to experience art in this way—but how has it for arts professionals who have had to redirect their focus? I spoke with MoCP’s Curator of Academic Programs and Exhibitions, Kristin Taylor, about “Photos at Zoom,” and the challenges and benefits of hosting events virtually.
Tell us about “Photos at Zoom.”
“Photos at Zoom” started as a virtual extension of our regular print-viewing program after the museum temporarily closed. During print viewings, a member of our education team will pull works from our permanent collections to [show] our audience, in discussions around themes, technical approaches and conceptual approaches behind the work. Print viewings are typically led with small groups and are heavily based in discussion and audience participation as they are designed to build visual literacy and critical thinking skills around the process of looking at art.
For “Photos at Zoom,” someone from our education team similarly leads a talk on a different theme in photography on Zoom every Wednesday at noon Central time. Although looking at images online is much different than looking at physical prints in person, we have been surprised at how engaging the conversations are in this virtual platform. People participate by contributing questions and comments in real time that the docent can read and respond to and the enthusiasm level seems quite high.
What are some of the topics and photographers you’ve covered so far?
We are in the fifth week of the program and have covered topics ranging from the Color Theory (explaining how photographers use color to direct viewer’s attention and to enhance the emotional response of the viewer) to Photographing the Domestic (featuring works made within artist’s homes or of family members). This week we will be discussing Constructed and Staged Images (when artists set up the scene in which they are photographing, rather than documenting an event or moment in real time).
How do you find people are responding to these virtual events versus in-person events? What have been the challenges and benefits?
The nature of the participation is quite different from our in-person print programs. The museum’s print study room—where our print viewings typically take place—only accommodates about thirty-five people at a time, so one major benefit to the virtual platform is that we are able to reach much further than a typical classroom size. In one session we had about 250 people participate, but our average attendance is about one hundred people per session. We are also able to reach new audiences far beyond the Chicago region that we were not able to engage with before and people are joining us from all over the world. We think the element of interacting with the community is important and true to the museum’s overall mission to cultivate a deeper understanding of the artistic, cultural and political roles of photography in our world today.
Unfortunately, we were Zoom-bombed last week at the very end of our session with Mark Klett. Luckily, the event was nearly over, but it made us more cautious about how we protect our online audiences from future interruptions. But there are many benefits and they far outweigh the challenges. We’re reaching new audiences and we’re also able to create more digital resources that we previously did not have the capacity to develop with our limited staff. We hope to continue these virtual studio tours and print viewings long after the museum reopens.
On Fridays at noon, you also host “Behind the Lens through Zoom,” where a photographer takes us into their studio. Is this an extension of “Photos at Zoom”? How did this series come about?
Yes, “Behind the Lens” evolved after our first “Photos at Zoom” session on the Fundamentals of Photography. I presented Clarissa Bonet’s work and saw so many comments and questions pop up in the chat asking for more information on her work. The following day, we asked her if she would be willing to give a behind-the-scenes studio tour and answer audience questions and she graciously accepted. We now have a different artist do the same each Friday, always complementing a theme of a previous “Photos at Zoom” session.
If I miss a Zoom event, are there online resources available that I can access?
Yes! All sessions are recorded and posted immediately to the museum’s Vimeo page and also to the “Photos at Zoom” resource page on our website.
MoCP Zoom events will continue through Illinois’ shelter-in-place order. For more information: mocp.org/education/resources/photo-at-zoom.php