The subject of virtual photography has been something that I have found particularly fascinating since I first encountered it a couple of years ago while playing Grand Theft Auto V, within each photograph I saw a statement about the medium itself. I spoke with James Pollock, a multidisciplinary creative from Bristol, England, about the subject of virtual photography and his project, Virtual Geographic, where he approaches video game worlds as a photographer approaches the physical world.
Would you say you’re a photographer?
Yes, I’ve been interested in photography since I was a kid, I was about 12 when I got my first digital camera, and in my teens the Lomography scene got me into film photography and opened my eyes to the possibilities for experimentation within the medium, I’ve done a number of films, digital and virtual photography projects since.
Any artists that influence your work?
Ernst Haas is a definite influence. His urban shots have this mixture of simplicity and mystery to them and I love the way he incorporated elements of signage and other graphic design into his work. I’m also a big fan of contemporary street photographers such as Matthias Heiderich and Liam Wong.
In the virtual photography sphere, Duncan Harris was the first person I heard about who was doing this but it was actually Leonardo Sang’s GTA IV series that drew me in and encouraged me to give it a go.
How did this project start? With a specific game? Did the idea come first?
I was already aware that there were a few people doing virtual photography, so one day when I was playing Skyrim, I started thinking about what would make a good shot, but once I saw it I had to actually follow through and take the shot, and I carried on from there. Basically, it was getting harder and harder for me to ignore the photographic opportunities in games.
In the beginning, I was using my Xbox 360 and a phone camera, just pointing it at the screen to take the shot, this was in 2012, so the shots weren’t very hi-res, and then there were all these moire patterns from the TV, so they came out pretty rough but I leaned into that by using camera filters that simulated film, so there were these two kinds of simulation coming together to make something new.
Is there a specific style of photography that you usually lean towards when taking photos? (i.e. street, still life, portrait, etc.)
Mainly street photography, this does limit the kinds of games I tackle, but I feel that capturing moments of quietness and mundanity in these human spaces brings a certain humanity and life to the surface that I think is unseen by most gamers.
Watch Dogs 2
Does your photography influence the video games you play in any way? What do you look for in a game that you’d want to photograph?
I play quite a few games, but just because a game looks beautiful or has a great photo mode doesn’t mean I’m necessarily going to be drawn to take photos there, it has to be a space that I’m excited to explore in this way.
I realized a few years ago that worldbuilding was the defining quality I was gravitating towards in my choice of games to photograph, that is, the practice of building a fictional world in a holistic way that results in a cohesive and believable vision, and what I was attempting to draw out through my photography was that sense of believability and realism outside of just what we call ‘photorealism’.
How has your work evolved with the advancements in video games and in-game photo tools?
Since 2013 I have been using gaming PCs and photo modes/tools to capture my shots, this means that the image is captured as it appears on my screen or at an even higher resolution like 16K.
Over the last few years, more and more game developers have been integrating photo modes into their games, providing sophisticated tools for taking shots, with the ability to not just move the camera around freely but change things such as the focal length and depth of field, giving a level of control that’s much closer to a real-world camera.
But not every game will have a photo mode, modders do make third-party tools for games that don’t have them or improve the capabilities of games that do. When you have a game with a good photo mode, it can be a joy to use, but sometimes you have to get creative with a very limited photo mode. It's one thing to have a fixed lens, but not being able to shoot portrait or from anything other than head height? That can be more of a challenge to overcome.
Is there a difference between a simple screenshot and what you would consider a virtual photograph?
I would say that the difference between those two terms comes down to intent and what the person capturing those shots wants to call them and why, ultimately I don’t want to tell anyone who says they are taking ‘screenshots’ that they are, in fact, taking photographs (or vice versa).
For me, when I’m taking shots, I’m applying a photographic approach, I’m looking at my subjects with what I consider a photographer’s eye, so it feels natural to call what I’m doing ‘photography’. I feel photography is a broad enough concept that it can accommodate images taken in virtual spaces, and is useful for describing a large part of what I’m doing.
However, photography literally means ‘drawing with light’, and if we’re no longer working real light but an entirely artificial model of physics and reality, we will probably need new terms to refer to what’s happening, both in front of and behind the virtual lens. As an overall descriptor, I like the term ‘virtual photography’, as it acknowledges the similarities in practice while recognizing that it is taking place outside of our physical world. It’s a useful term for describing my shots because they’re taken in a virtual environment rather than of a game, and also leaves the door open to exploring non-game virtual spaces.
I found your page through Inner Storm magazine on Instagram and it’s not the only page I found dedicated to the promotion of the work of virtual photographers. Has the community always been this big and people just haven’t been aware? When did you notice that this was a pretty significant subculture of gaming?
It’s crept up on me, that’s for sure. I think the rise of the photo mode has brought photography to gamers in an almost unavoidable way because the tools are readily available in most major titles, they’re easy to use, and it’s easy to share the results, that sharing is all you need to begin forming a community. It’s a lot easier to get into now.
That also means that attitudes have softened towards virtual photography, both from gamers and photographers, it makes such a difference to be able to put your hands Watch Dogs 2
on the tools and try for yourself.
Naturally, the debate of authorship comes up. Are you often challenged as an artist because the subject matter you capture is in an environment someone else created?
So this is one of those things that I think people have eased up on, it was something I would always see pop up in articles and comment sections but now I think a lot of those people have tried it for themselves or have just gotten used to the idea and don’t feel that strongly about it anymore.
There are really two sides to the authorship question, the legal side and the artistic side:
Legally, I’m pretty sure the game companies own the images taken in their games, and as far as I’m aware no one’s challenging that.
Artistically, if you start questioning the legitimacy of photographs taken in virtual environments not created by the photographer, what are you then saying about the legitimacy of photographs taken in real-world environments not created by the photographer? Did you create that tree? That building? That dog? That person?
I think a lot of the criticism comes from an idea that this is easy, and it can be, just like pulling out your phone and snapping whatever's in front of you can be easy, however for me and many others, the enjoyment comes from challenging yourself, trying to satisfy your own artistic goals. If it was easy I wouldn't do it.
“The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own.” - Susan Sontag
The world can look very different when you’re looking through a lens, the same is true of virtual worlds, I definitely enjoy how practicing virtual photography gives me a fresh perspective, it allows me to ‘read’ games in a different way.
However, when I think about literal tourists, I don’t necessarily think about artistic photography, often it’s more about documenting an experience rather than trying to achieve a particular vision. As such, if you were to go through all the photos that all the visitors to Disneyland took in a day, you’d see a lot of similar images, that’s not by accident, it’s an entirely constructed space, made with those images in mind. A gamer’s approach to photography can be close to a tourist’s, it can be hard to break out of that constructed space and take photos that say the things you want to say instead.
There is much debate, and it’s been going on for years, around whether virtual photography is even a form of photography, much less art, and one can’t help but draw parallels to the rejection of photography as an art form a century ago. Consider what poet Charles Baudelaire wrote in 1859, “If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon supplant or corrupt it all together, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally.’’
The world of art is so broad, encompassing so many different ideas, viewpoints, media, and methods that it seems naive now to think that photography could supplant or corrupt it, and I think most people today would say art is better off for it existing. I think in time we will say the same thing about virtual photography's place in photography.
Historically, photography has been interpreted as the recording of the “real”. What does your practice say about photography considering there’s no “real” in video games?
For me, the quote marks around "real" is the understanding that all photography is an interpretation of reality and that interpretation is the space where we as photographers operate. With my practice, that means taking on a constructed, artificial reality by reinterpreting it in my own way.
There is a "real" in video games, it's just a different "real". The worlds are virtual but even the most cartoonish is a reflection of our reality, what I put of myself into my virtual photographs is real, and what people get out of viewing them is real, there is always something real that is being represented.
Something that I didn’t realize until I saw your photos in Jet Set Radio Future, is that a significant portion of in-game photographers, that I’ve seen, prefer games with photorealistic graphics and that the creation of hyperreal images (ones that could be mistaken for “real” photos) is the goal. Am I mistaken in that perspective? What do you make of it?
It's an ideal, something that players and game designers have looked for in games for decades, I think some take that ideal over into virtual photography but I don't think the intention is to trick people, photorealistic games can sometimes offer virtual photographers more to work with, more details, reflections, atmospherics, dynamic lighting, etc. and creating realistic looking photos is a compelling challenge.
As I mentioned earlier, I'm looking for realism outside of just what is considered photoreal, Jet Set Radio Future is a good example of that. It’s a cartoony, cel-shaded game from 2002, but the world is believable in its own way, it feels alive, and that’s what I try to get across in my photographs.
Jet Set Radio Future
If a virtual image can be considered a simulation of a real-world image, and when this simulation is indistinguishable from the real world product, is the authority of the real photograph threatened?
To me, they are all real images, real images of real things, real images of virtual things, and everything in-between. If there is a simulation, it’s only interesting when it is open about it. If the authority of the real photograph hasn’t been killed by a quarter-century of Photoshop, I think it will be fine.
Your Jet Set Radio Future images are fascinating because they create an interesting perspective. Virtual photography already feels like a statement that photography isn’t bound to the real world but then, with these photos, you could take it further by saying that photography isn’t bound by realistic, representations of the “real” either. Photography’s dependence on real-world phenomena isn’t a property inherent to the form but one that was projected onto it. What then is photography?
Man Ray was demonstrating that photography isn't bound by realism almost 100 years ago. For me, as someone who grew up taking double exposure photographs and messing with images in Photoshop, the "real" is a flexible element of photography, it is not photography itself.
When I approach virtual photography, I'm applying photographic techniques to treat virtual spaces as I would real spaces, and not making any conscious differentiation between those learned through virtual photography and real-world photography. It's like painting with oils on canvas versus painting on a tablet, there is no physical paint but it is still painting.
Photography is something that people do, it's a practice, a way of approaching image-making.
Jet Set Radio Future
How do you see the future of this project? Of gaming photography?
Whilst it may seem like virtual photography is pushing towards a 1:1 match with the creative and technical possibilities of real-world photography, I think virtual photography will have its Man Ray moment too.
This might be obvious, but the virtuality of it all separates it from real-world photography, it pervades everything, the people, the places, the light itself, it's this whole new element that you can push away or pull towards or play with in different ways. In the real world, you can’t stop time, you can’t float through the floor, you can’t have a lens the size of a house, you can’t strip back everything to its component parts. As more people become aware of those superpowers, we might see a push towards the more abstract, surreal, and uncanny.