Kate Bergdorf has opened up an interesting debate on her blog about the ‘validity’ of virtual photography. Recently snubbed by an RL photographer friend when she asked him for an opinion on the images she created for her new exhibition, Le serpent qui dance (currently on display at Itakos Gallery), Kate asserts that “a photograph is a photograph whether it is taken in real or virtual worlds.” She continues, “if not, would someone please explain to me what is actually the difference?”
It’s a fascinating question, and one which I approach with no particular expertise notwithstanding an on-and-off interest in RL photography over about the last twenty-five years. I’m drawn to it in part because the RL friend I’ve most enjoyed that hobby with over this time has a number of views about photography that differ in places from my own and which have sparked some lively – and not entirely unconnected – conversations.
For example, he takes quite a dim view of mass usage filters applied to pictures. We’re talking Instagram here. His view is that pictures messed with in this way – for example, to make them look old or under-saturated – are not really genuine photos. It’s not so much that he has a problem with image manipulation as it is that he dislikes everyone using the same special effect. I, on the other hand, am quite happy to use off-the-shelf filters if I feel they enhance a photograph I’ve taken.
It’s tempting to label such views as his as defensive or some sort of snobbery. I remind myself, however, that my friend is actually highly skilled in many of the technical aspects of photography that I’ve never really bothered to learn, and that my general view in life is that less skilled people criticising the views and knowledge of more skilled people is something of a problem in the world at the moment (coughTrumpcough).
So where my friend will spend time carefully considering aperture and shutter speed to get the right amount of light onto the film or sensor, I tend to leave the camera on auto mode and think more about composition. My belief is that his skills are less and less vital as photography becomes more and more automated, whereas composition remains as important as it ever did. I think I’m right in saying that his view, on the other hand, would be that ‘photography’ is a set of specific skills and the images created through these skills are ‘photographs’: you can play all you want with toys that do all this work for you, but the images that result are not true photographs. This isn’t to say that they don’t have value, it’s just that they’re something else. A table made from metal might seat four for dinner, but it isn’t carpentry.
Where do Second Life photos fit into this? One way of exploring this issue might be to consider the similarities and differences SL images have with both conventional photos and with paintings – we must agree at least that paintings and photographs are two different things, much as they might both attempt to capture an object or a person or a scene. Second Life images, then, are different from photographs in that they involve no physical capture of real life light reflecting off real light objects. They are at best simulations of real life light and objects, albeit the potential is there for these simulations to appear incredibly real. On the other hand, SL images are similar to photographs in that they involve the instant capture of arranged items created externally to our creative process. If I take a picture of a female reclining on a couch then it’s likely I didn’t create the couch or the room it’s in or the clothes the model is wearing (or, extending this to SL, her body or her shape or her skin). The thing that I bring creatively is my arrangement of these items, and my lighting and composition of this arrangement.
It could be said that an SL image is more like a painting, however, because there’s no limit to the things we can take pictures of in SL. In boring old RL we can’t take photographs of dragons or alien landscapes or dancing fairies because none of these things are available to us to photograph. Paintings suffer no such limitation. A counter-argument to that, however, might be that we can certainly take photographs of models of all those things – and have been doing so for many, many years. And what are items in SL if not models?
It’s looking pretty good for the ‘SL pictures are photos’ argument. But have we considered sufficiently the various different types of photography? Another difference that exists between my friend and I is in the nature of the pictures we take. Where I tend to go for composed, aesthetically satisfying images, his preference is to capture life happening. He takes a camera with him everywhere. He captures images of family members mid-sentence or reacting to someone else’s comments. He’s sort of a scaled-down version of a war photographer, with a belief that a still image and the attention it can draw to a particular aspect of a subject might just tell you more about that person than a video clip of them ever could. Where in SL does the possibility exist to capture spontaneous behaviour and emotions? Suddenly, we’re on much shakier ground.
Although it isn’t as though we don’t try to capture these things. Facial expressions for mesh heads are a thing now as are all manner of finger arrangements (since it’s not only through our faces that we express our emotions). It might not yet be possible to capture as-they-happen expressions, but the real-time mapping of facial expression from you to your avatar’s face is certainly something that’s being researched (much as I personally hate the idea), so it will likely be a reality one day. Pictures about emotion might be staged pictures for the moment, but there’s no reason to suppose that this will always be the case.
And the ‘SL pictures are not photos’ argument starts to get into real trouble when we look ahead at all the graphic improvements likely in the future. At the movies today it’s almost impossible to distinguish between what is real and what is computer-created; it’s no great leap of the imagination to assume that this level of realism will arrive eventually in virtual worlds. When we can no longer tell if a photo has been taken in real life or not, will it be important to us whether it actually was or not?
Actually, I think it will. Knowing that a picture of a starving child or a war victim or a person with cancer is real is precisely what gets us digging into our pockets and donating in response to appeals. Real life human suffering is one thing that virtual photography won’t ever be able to truly capture. It might be only one aspect of photography’s wide range of purpose, but it is the one that’s probably changed the world the most over the last century. The realness of RL photography is important. And that’s why we will always continue to call it RL photography.
Are RL and SL photography the same thing? No. Are they each equally valid forms of photography, with their own range of categories and function, some of which overlap and some of which are distinct? Yes, I think they are.