Screenshot or photograph? Does how you label it really matter?

Myra Wildmist started an interesting discussion on what virtual photography really is and if it is so different from, let’s say, real-world photography (since she refers at some point to Wikipedia, I’d notice that what she calls virtual photography is classified by the free online encyclopedia rather as in-game photography – but, yes, photography). The subject came out of some unnecessary and impolite comments that she had received on Flickr and that she brilliantly transformed into the starting point for an enlightening reflection, to which I’d like to contribute here with my two cents.

‘Colossus of Rhodes: Where’s Adam?’. All the images that appear on this post were taken in Second Life

In a comment to a photo by Myra Wildmist, someone complained that Second Life shots have allegedly been spreading throughout Flickr, which would represent a problem because, as the person sees them, they are not photos but screenshots from a game (I won’t repeat the person’s words here, I prefer to paraphrase, in order to make this post less emotional). That Flickr user points out that, in SL, lens, depth of field and light, among other elements, don’t really exist, they are simulated (that argument sounds to me as a renewed, and somewhat less elaborate, version of Plato’s reasoning for banning artists, as a whole, from the just city in The Republic, for they would be just imitators).

‘Tribute to persona 3, Color’: homage or simulation?

The person goes on, saying that people in general wouldn’t care about games as resources for artistic images, because real life is already so rich and that’s where “real photographers” are capturing “strong and emotional moments”. If the one who takes screenshots in games cares about those images, it is because their “game character probably represents something that [they] want, but cannot be in real life. Like a photographer” (here I quote the comment’s author, because their words will be particularly important to my observations. I would like to stress, though, that they eventually apologized for their rude remarks, and that this post is not about impoliteness. The points I mention here are the ones that I would like to reflect about during this post).

‘Birds in a cathedral’, taken in Memento Mori, Chouchou V, Second Life

Beyond the view of SL photography as simulation (and I tend to compare the notion of simulation here to Plato’s concept of imitation, as I have already suggested), there seems to be an underlying idea, in those comments, that, if no (real) camera is involved, then the result cannot be a photograph. If one presses print screen on their keyboard to capture an image, it’s not photography. If they use Second Life’s photo tools, it’s not photography. It is worth noticing, though, that since its very beginning the process of producing photos also incorporates some kinds of cameraless images, such as photograms (in which objects are placed on a photographic paper sheet that is, then, exposed to light), luminograms (in which photographic paper is directly exposed to light, and variations are created by interventions on the light source) and other products of creative processes of various natures (like Susan Derges‘s idea of placing photographic paper in the waters of a river at night).

‘Randy Profile Pic 2018-01-14 (Better version)’

In technical terms, photography involves capturing light or the effect of light on objects – and it doesn’t matter if the process for doing it is analogical (by means of films and photographic paper) or digital. Also technically, screenshots can be described as a way of capturing the effect of light on the screen of a computer’s monitor, for instance, or of a cell phone.

‘Looking back’, taken in Drune, SL

It is true that there is a discussion on who is actually responsible for the image one sees on a game-based screenshot: is it the photographer or the person or team who has developed the game? This subject, itself, could generate another long blog post, but we can avoid it in the specific case of Second Life, because SL provides us with some powerful photo and light tools. If a photographer is able to control the color and intensity of light on a scene, the possible presence of mist in it, what kind of lenses will be simulated for a particular shot and so on, then they are actually producing effects that could not be totally foreseen by those who created the original virtual environment where the photograph is being taken. Thus, photo tools in Second Life are not only a simulation of real life elements, but also a means of giving photographers more instruments for them to express their own views of a certain virtual place or scene.

‘Hyde Park Victorian, interior 1 (Schultz Bros.)’, taken at Schultz Bros., in SL

If many or only a few people are interested in SL photography or in other forms of in-game photography, this should not matter so much for the artistic value of the activity. Otherwise, by that criterion, one would say that Van Gogh’s paintings only became artistic after his death (he has sold no more than one painting during his life) or that the movies on Marvel’s heroes are a more sublime form of art than Akira Kurosawa’s ones. Still, there are in-game photographers, such as Robert Overweg, who have exhibited in renowned real life spaces and events, probably attracting the attention not only of gamers, but of the general public.

‘Chouchou: and Babel explodes’, taken in Chouchou XVI, SL

Also, it is debatable that, if people who take screenshots in games are interested in their images, it is probably because they can simulate, there, what they cannot be in real life – such as photographers. First, their ability to take photos in Second Life or in another game or virtual world may not be linked at all to real-life photography. Some well-known in-game photographers, such as Duncan Harris, do not seem to have a professional background related with real-life photos and, frankly, it doesn’t matter whether they would want to. Second, some virtual-world photographers are, nonetheless, real-life photographers as well. That’s the case, for instance, of Leonardo Sang. Third, maybe some people go beyond those definitions and, besides taking photos in Second Life and other virtual worlds, have a series of different artistic productions – like Eva and Franco Mattes do.

‘Can’t take my eye off you’, taken in ‘Mediamorphosis’, an art installation by Djehuti-Anpu, or Thoth Jantzen, in SL

Finally, I understand that defining or not screenshots as photographs may be crucial for a discussion on whether it is appropriate to have them on platforms for sharing photos. Yet, those labels will not say much about the artistic nature or importance of virtual-world-based images. Many photographic productions in the real world are only meant to register some moment or item, with no intention of being called art. That can be the case, too, of screenshots, be them considered photographs or not. Still, some of them are so carefully worked on or thought of, or involve some kind of conceptual intention, that they can go beyond a mere careless print of a screen. It doesn’t really matter how we call those items, but how we are called by them, how we are invited by those images, themselves, to observe them.

5 thoughts on “Screenshot or photograph? Does how you label it really matter?

  1. Art is not defined by the process by which it is made. Art is something that evokes a response in others. Be it by sight, touch, hearing …. even taste or smell.
    The ‘how’ is not of consequence….what matters is that it seeks to effect – even just one person – positively, or negatively.
    If it does that, it IS art.
    Therefore Myra’s rather ignorant and seemingly quite angry commenter has, by his extreme reaction – defined Myra’s virtual photograph very much as Art.

    Reading his comments actually made me feel sick to my stomach. So much anger, and so little attempt for any adult discourse on the subject.
    Just the rantings of someone who seems to feel their own work is insulted by proximity to VP?

    Did he seek an image out simply to unleash his ignorance and bile? Why not just pass on by?
    If he’s not a Follower of virtual photographers, and Myra does not post to groups other than for VP – how on earth did he even come to find her picture at all?

    By his reckoning anyone who has depicted Christ should be dismissed as an artist. What utterly ridiculous reasoning that man has!

  2. My sincere apologies to you Ricco, for having my little rant here on your blog. Please feel free to delete it!

    And I gave absolutely NO mention at all to your post! So rude of me. Because your writing is erudite, logical and extremely enlightening.
    And I agree with every single word.

    1. Hi, Bou, I will delete your past comment if you would like me to, but I see no need for apologies, really. Actually, I think that there are some interesting points to develop on it. Above all, it is indeed worth noticing that, as you stressed it, art is not defined by what it is made of, unless, I would add, if its substance is particularly relevant to its intention, message, objective or means of communicating with the public. Otherwise, the effect of some kind of production is much more important to its artistic nature than its substance, process or support. I mean, the same support, or technique or substance can be present both in a piece that would be considered artistic and in another piece that would not be treated as art. Also, items produced in very different ways could have the same kind of breathtaking or overwhelming impact on the public, so that they would all be considered art even being engendered by dissimilar techniques.

      One could argue that the person responsible for those specific comments on Myra’s Flickr page was not worried about defining something as art, but about what’s OK to appear on Flickr and what is not – in other words, what is a photograph. But, from the very beginning, the person establishes some kind of hierarchy of values: screenshots are less important, people don’t care about them, real photographers are working in the real world. And then, at some point, the author of the comments clearly states that the problem is that screenshots are not art. So, actually, that allegation seems to be an important aspect of their main argument.

      As you, I myself did not understand why the person was complaining. I mean, they stated that they didn’t care about SL screenshots, as long as they would circulate only among SLers. Myra, for her part, said that she didn’t promote her SL pictures in real life photograph groups. So there would be nothing for the other person to complain about, I guess. Anyway, I think that it is interesting that a discussion emerged from that material – mainly because Myra decided to do so, at first, by seriously examining some points of the other person’s reasoning.

      As for me, I decided not to amplify too much the person’s angry and impolite words (though i mention some on the post, just to build my own reasoning), since they apologized at some point and admitted that they had gone too far. It’s not that everything is excusable after someone apologizes, but, if Myra herself did not delete the comments and, instead, chose to use them as the basis for a broader reflection, I will give the person some credit for recognizing their mistakes.

      See, recently I had a comment deleted on someone’s page on Flickr, and I got blocked by the person. For much less. For something I didn’t mean, actually. I even contacted the person in-world, to try to sort things out. I soon gave up – I felt it wouldn’t be possible. Anyway, I like what Myra did there, and I will take the chance to collaborate with the discussion. Yet, I totally understand the ones who react like: oh, those comments on Myra’s Flickr page really crossed the line. Because they did. I felt somewhat shocked by reading them.

      Finally, one doesn’t have to literally mention my post here, I just mean to start a conversation. No formalities, just feel free to contribute in the way you feel like doing. But thank you for your always kind words about my texts, the only problem is that I may at some point believe that I can actually write well, LOL.

      You are always welcome here, always 🙂

  3. You are always very gracious Ricco.

    I too thought Myra’s handling of the situation to be exemplary, she never once stooped to flinging insults, just calmly and clearly attempted to enlighten and educate.

    I cannot begin to understand why someone would take exception to a comment you made.
    I’ve had a few comments on my stream that have made me scratch my head in puzzlement, but I chose to believe they were written benignly rather than meant as an insult.
    The world has quite enough conflict and stress right now without making Flickr into a battleground too.

    As for your writing skills?
    I like the way you ‘see’ things, I like the way you explain how, and why, you see those things as you do. You make me think.
    And I always come away from reading your posts having learned something.

    1. Thank you, Bou, thank you very much. I like the idea that we can talk and enlighten each other. That’s what a good conversation means. But, oh, my comments can be harsh sometimes, and I regret later. But I swear that it was not my intention in the case that I mentioned. Maybe my tone and my aim got lost in translation? I mean, literally, since English is not my first language. It wouldn’t be the first time. Oh, well, never mind 😉

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