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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.