Karl "Illsnapmatix" Smith was walking through a homeless community underneath the light rail tracks in a place called Strawberry when he spotted something. Lit in silhouette by the dying light, just barely visible, a man sat alone against a wall with a bottle in his hand. Smith pulled out his camera and, in his words, "caught this gentleman having a quiet drink." It's a snapshot of life on the edge, but it's not real. All of it happened in a video game.
Smith was playing Grand Theft Auto V, and the photo he snapped was taken with his character's smartphone. GTA V is unusual among games in that it presents its players with all of the limitations of real photography, transplanted onto the virtual space. You can't take a photo of something unless your character can see it, and you can only shoot from positions and angles that he or she can reach. You're restricted by the capabilities of your run-of-the-mill virtual smartphone, which comes equipped with basic zooming and Instagram-like filters, and by the physical abilities of your avatar.
Smith is one of many virtual photographers focused on capturing life in the bits and bytes of GTA V. Most take pictures of pimped-out cars in the persistent online mode where they can meet and hang out with like-minded players. Some pretend to be photojournalists documenting the perpetual violence on the streets of Los Santos. Others, like Smith, work more like street photographers. Photos are shared on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, developer Rockstar's Social Club, and Imgur. Smith posts his photos on his own website, where he occasionally also interviews other GTA V photographers.
But Grand Theft Auto is certainly not alone in the virtual photography world. There are loads of games with dedicated virtual photographers, and dozens of online communities have formed around showcasing and sharing the beauty of virtual worlds big, small, peaceful, and violent. Perhaps the most prominent is a website Dead End Thrills, which is run by former games journalist Duncan Harris.
Harris pushes games to their graphical limit, with maximum detail settings and community-made modifications installed to make the visuals as impressive as possible. Then he goes into a debug mode that strips away interface elements such as character health bars and carefully composes screenshots that showcase the world as richly as possible in order to highlight the talents of game developers. Recent games given the Dead End Thrills photography treatment include role-playing epic The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, racing simulation Project CARS, and sci-fi space MMO EVE Online. Altogether, Harris has posted dozens of artful screenshots in over 70 games.
He doesn't consider what he does photography, however. Images on Dead End Thrills may capture virtual environments with all of the apparent skill and artistry of a real photograph, but to Harris they are merely screenshots. He believes the artistic credit lies entirely with the game developers. "If you take a screenshot of a character model walking towards a largely static piece of scenery, however well it's composed, you're not an artist, you're a tourist," he told Kill Screen in January. And if you go the extra length to hack the game so that you can control the visual effects and camera and other elements of a scene yourself? You remain, in Harris' view, a "screenshot-er" — because the skill set required is distinctly different to traditional photography.
Smith takes a more nuanced view, particularly in the context of GTA. "Technically all in-game [GTA V] 'screenshots' are copyright Rockstar games," he tells Hopes&Fears. "But here they've given gamers the virtual tools to interpret the virtual environment." With those tools in hand, an in-game photograph may at some point become a transformative work of art. Smith puts a finer point on it: "If you capture virtual light in a virtual world with a virtual camera, is that photography?"
Future games may even include virtual DSLR cameras complete with aperture and depth of field control as well as manual focus, zoom, exposure adjustment, and flash — all the essential tools of a modern photographer. Would virtual photography then be a valid form of photography? Smith is excited to see how both sides of the debate deal with these sorts of technological advancements.
In the meantime, many are sidestepping the ontological questions in favor of getting down and dirty with virtual cameras in virtual environments. One such person is Tess Baxter, better known as Tizzy Canucci in the persistent virtual world of Second Life. (Her virtual photos are posted on Flickr and worked into essays on WordPress.) Unlike Harris and Smith, who have little real-world photography experience, Baxter has years of professional photography under her belt. She says that photography in a virtual world is essentially very similar to photography in the real world because it's three dimensional. "You navigate yourself around space and you're thinking about where the cameras can be placed," she explains.
She's not sure how or why she got into taking photos of virtual lives and environments several years ago, but she's fascinated by the aesthetics of it. Almost everything you see in Second Life was created by its inhabitants. The choices people make in designing their piece of the world and the visual styles that they present are informed as much by their imagination as by the creation tools and pre-made objects at their disposal. The result is something that both reflects and diverges from reality. "Those things that people change and the things that they don't are I think quite revealing," Baxter says.
People live in Second Life's virtual world. They change it and shape it. They inhabit it through their avatar, building homes, sightseeing, buying and selling stuff, forming relationships — even having sex.
Baxter tries to capture these places, avatars, and things as they are — unedited — in order to explore and document other people's creativity. Virtual photography, perhaps more than the real kind, is collaborative, interactive, and ephemeral. It is inherently digital, and everything digital is at least in part created by people. A photograph of a virtual world is essentially a collaboration between the designers and artists who created the space and the photographer who chooses what to capture and how.
Graphic designer and artist Robert Overweg explores this collaboration in a particularly effective way. Overweg captures games at their seams and blows the images up to sizes far beyond what they were made for so that you can marvel at the details — at first remarkable for their accuracy, then for how skilfully they produce the illusion of accuracy and wholeness. His early steps in virtual world photography mirrored the street photography style he favored as a younger man, but gradually he learned to embrace the possibilities and break free from his preconceptions of how a photograph could look.
Now he heads off the beaten path, away from the routes and plots scripted for you. His photos ask provocative questions as he documents the edges of virtual worlds — the points at which an otherwise realistic-looking rendering stops abruptly and without warning, much like the real world was once thought to end (before we discovered it was round, not flat). He gets inside walls and terrain and captures the world from these strange inside-out perspectives, and he revels in framing things not meant to be as though they were perfectly normal — cars half embedded in roads or floating in the air, people hugging 30 feet above the ground, pathways that appear carved out of a void, objects and buildings that are only half formed, stairways to the sky. One of Overweg's collections is currently being exhibited at museum and cultural complex
One of Overweg's collections is currently being exhibited at museum and cultural complex Centre Pompidou in Paris. "Flying and Floating", as it's called, gives a new view of the fictional 1940s mobster world of Mafia 2 by capturing it from angles you're never supposed to see and by highlighting its visual glitches. "To me where something goes wrong in a game, when a glitch happens, that is the most human things to happen in a virtual world," Overweg says. "Since games are still made by humans and flaws like those are one of the best examples of a human touch."
And that really is what photography in virtual worlds is about: showcasing human ingenuity, creativity, and endeavor — warts and all — as we edge ever closer to merging our virtual realities with the real one. The barrier between what's real and imagined is breaking down, and photographers of virtual worlds are (perhaps unwittingly) documenting the transition.