Corey Keller. Photo by Don Ross, Courtesy of SFMOMA

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FotoFocus Curator Kevin Moore Talks Telephotography and the World After Covid

Posted on July 6, 2021

“It’s the literal, technological zooming in, bringing things closer — but also this idea of being connected to other people. It’s about the emotional aspect of what photography tries to satisfy.”

After the announcement of the 2021 FotoFocus Symposium theme Telephotography, The Lens caught up with Artistic Director and Curator Kevin Moore to dive into the past, present, and potential of telephotography — and what ideas are percolating with this fall’s panelists.

FotoFocus: There’s a dual association with telephotography. You have the telephoto lens, which brings far-away subjects into view, as well as the digital transmission of images across space and time. How, in your thinking of the Symposium’s theme, do these two meanings intersect or build into a larger idea?

Kevin Moore: I think the most essential thing about all of this is psychological. It’s about connectivity, and it’s about bringing things closer in a psychological way — preserving things, keeping things. It’s an essential, impossible request we make of photography: asking it to make the dead live forever, and to give us connection to people who are far away. 

One of the things that will be addressed in the Symposium, which I think will mostly come out in the architecture and design panel — titled, for the moment, “Designing for Absence” — are these ways we’ve needed Zoom to compensate for not seeing people. I’ve had the image in mind of people saying goodbye to loved ones, as they’re dying in hospitals, on FaceTime. Also surrogate touch, like pornography. All of these things that we were asking photography to do through the Zoom format that was not possible physically during that time.

For me, that is the middle of the two definitions: the literal, technological zooming in, bringing things closer, but also this idea of being connected to other people. It’s about the emotional aspect of what photography tries to satisfy.

FF: In all of these meetings on Zoom, even at that distance or remove, there ends up being a lot more almost unintentional intimacy. You’re meeting with people when they are in their living room; you’re seeing their kid or their partner move by. There’s that contradictory closeness.

KM: Exactly. On the one hand, you’re not in the room with them, but you’re also getting these snapshots of their personal, private life. A cat wanders through, or a child comes asking for something. Or just their decor.

FF: Photography is unique as an art form in its ubiquity in our lives — all the more so in this way or world order. In terms of the Symposium lineup, there’s fascinating breadth, too: It’s looking at the personal as well as the societal. Telephotography permeates through those different layers. How does this presence and crossover between segments of our lives add to — or complicate — our understanding of the medium?

KM: That’s a big question. In talking to the different panelists about it, what a lot of them said was, This is a huge topic. As in: All photography is telephotography — that’s the essential thing about photography, that it transmits, travels. But I’ve come to think more about the specific nature of what is being transmitted and preserved.

Especially in the 19th-century panel, we’re talking about seeing the unseen. It’s about conceiving of things that are not visible except through photographic technologies, like X-rays and telescopes — things that were crazy breakthroughs at the time of their invention. Even the clash of science and religion, of using photography to try to prove the realm of the spirit. At the time, that was fair game as something to investigate and try to visualize, the same as bones under skin. 

FF: As you’re looking from the 19th century to the present, is there a particular arc that you see telephotography taking? What was driving these developments?

KM: These things that we take for granted — such as press imagery, or the use of X-rays — these are structures that formed, in the beginning, as part of this utopian, modern idea that science was going to cure all illnesses, and the news media was going to bring the world closer. That, in terms of social documentary, seeing poverty would result in solving it.

All of these early 20th-century ideals and expectations of photography, these systems that were set up — these institutions, really — were established based on the truth that was told in photographs, and the ability to send that somewhere and communicate it quickly. Now, we’re looking at the mistrust of those institutions; we’re looking at them going haywire, at the ways that photographs are manipulated to tell mistruths and intentionally use those systems, which were established as part of a utopian ideal, to flat-out cheat the system and fool people. 

But I intentionally chose topics and panelists that can, I think, speak to some sort of more positive future. Who will look at what’s just happened in the last year, look at the stage of the technology, and think of ways to be visionary with it looking forward — ways that they can imagine a better outcome down the road.

FF: To that end, how have you seen conversations around distance, and virtual transmission, particularly in art, changing since our world turned so largely virtual last spring? 

KM: It was something I was already interested in — artists doing things remotely. It goes against our late-capitalist social media idea of what success is, that you’re supposed to get as many people to see something as possible. That’s a success: You fill a stadium and you’ve achieved your goals.

But increasingly, I see artists who largely work in isolation, often in remote places. I’ve seen them do projects that are only seen physically by two or three people, and everyone knows about them only through some kind of transmission of imagery — whatever it is they offer in terms of the experience, mediatized. That’s the whole thing, and it’s only intended to be that way.

During Covid, I was really interested to see the ways in which art fairs and galleries around the world were trying to replicate the experience. I think by far the worst replications were these online, virtual environments where you walk around and turn your head. I think the best ones were those that actually showed you real places.

There was one art fair that, instead of creating a virtual idea of an art fair with white walls and booths, had everyone set up in whatever location they were in around the world and photograph that, so you could visit these different “booths.” Instead of bringing all of the different galleries together, you basically went to all of their home locations. They were setting up in hotels and in warehouses and in basements, all of these really unusual environments, and there you saw the art on display that they would have brought to the fair to sell. But it was so fascinating to see the work in an abandoned warehouse in Poland, or a chic hotel in Paris that they borrowed to share the work of this one artist.

It’s a little bit like that glimpse into someone’s personal life with the Zoom call, the office worker that you did not know has such a chic blue bedroom or some Siamese cat — things you would never know except that you’re having Zoom conversations with them. I found this incredible voyeuristic desire was satisfied by this kind of installation of art. I’ve been really excited about the idea that art can be created in remote places and it can still be enjoyed and experienced — and that it may be simply created for that purpose alone.

FF: It’s the thought that, instead of asking, How can this be an inferior substitute for what we’re used to? inquires: What does this offer us instead? What can we do differently? Or: What’s now available?

KM: It’s exactly the paradox of seeing your colleagues remotely but in their home environment. You learn so much more about them. I think this is true too of certain kinds of arts experiences — rather than bring it into the sanitized environment of the art fair, to actually be able to visit exotic locations, or private locations. That’s, in some ways, more interesting than the experience of being in an art fair, physically, in Miami or something.

FF: What seems possible in art with telephotography that didn’t before? 

KM: Like with most technologies, it’s been around for a while. But all of a sudden, because of some massive thing like Covid, everyone starts using it. There has been a tendency for people to want to decentralize in the world — to move out of cities to more responsible agrarian, high-tech-but-not-wasteful lifestyles. And I think in some ways, the beauty of this is you might be satisfied to not travel so much to go to meetings, but to do it in a more satisfying and responsible way through this technology. I’m hoping that will be one outcome from this.

It may not be that office work is radically changed in the next few months, but it could be that the generations of younger workers, people coming up, will look to this as an example of how to do things that makes total sense to them — that they’re not hung up on the idea of clocking in at 9 a.m. and leaving at 5 p.m. or whatever. I’m hoping that all kinds of experiences can be reconfigured by this time we’ve been in. As the technology has been proven to work in certain ways, there’s been a lot of innovation in the past year, too.