February 08, 2021 • Gideon Jacobs on photography and video games
IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO IDENTIFY exactly when photography “went digital,” but a helpful benchmark is January 19, 2012, the day the Eastman Kodak Company filed for bankruptcy. A little over a decade earlier, digital cameras entered the mainstream consumer market. Soon after, the same technology began to be incorporated into a new, suddenly ubiquitous device: the cell phone. By the end of the aughts, the film and film cameras that made Kodak a multinational $30 billion brand were rendered antiquated and niche. Photographic images, analog for nearly two centuries, were now 0s and 1s.
Recently, I’ve been wondering if we might end up looking back on June 30, 2020, as another red-letter date in the history of photography. That was the day licensing behemoth Getty Images announced they were partnering with video game development studio Polyphony Digital Inc. to serve as the exclusive photo agency of the Gran Turismo Championships. The deal was the first of its kind; a group of photographers who specialized in shooting motorsports would be assigned to the Esports tournament, tasked with creating “stunning in-game imagery” that showcased “the beauty and exhilaration of simulated racing.” The resulting screenshots are currently up on Getty’s site, treated no differently than any other image. They carry the same rate as photographs taken in what we usually refer to as the “real world.”
Of course, in-game photography is not new. Even before the most popular gaming system companies incorporated the screenshot functionality into their consoles—Sony in 2013, Microsoft in 2015, Nintendo in 2017—gamers were finding ways to capture the action, to save visual proof of their achievements. And there are many examples of in-game photography being baked into gameplay itself, as it is in franchises like Pokémon Snap, Fatal Frame, The Sims, and The Legend of Zelda. But a company like Getty beginning to take in-game photography seriously seems like a quiet inflection point to me, an indication that, just as the medium transitioned to digital technologies in previous decades, the medium’s subject will follow suit in this one. In other words, we may be approaching an era when most photographs are made with 0s and 1s on both sides of the camera. In other words, we may soon not be using cameras much at all.Kent Sheely, DoD #1, 2009, digital print, 40 x 32″.
Many artists have already started mining video games for imagery. Kent Sheely played the World War II–themed game Day Of Defeat: Source for three years, “not as a combatant, but as a journalist, capturing photographs of the conflict instead of participating in the battles.” Since 2015, Alan Butler has been documenting scenes of poverty in Grand Theft Auto V, taking portraits of the fictional city of Los Santos’ homeless population. Justin Berry is the Ansel Adams of the genre, capturing sublime landscapes in games like Crysis, Call of Duty, and Medal of Honor. These works have, to varying degrees, caught the attention of the institutional art world: Butler’s series, for example, was included in “Open World: Video Games and Contemporary Art” at the Akron Art Museum in Ohio, and Berry’s in “Anti-Grand: Contemporary Perspectives on Landscape” at the University of Richmond’s Harnett Museum of Art.
There are countless similar projects, but with almost all of them, the virtuality of the images, the ontological absurdity of the exercise, is kind of the point. This can make in-game photography as a conceptual art practice feel a little gimmicky. I would argue, though, that the genre is only ever relegated to gimmick because it has arrived early. Virtual realities are just beginning to rival our tangible experience in substantive complexity, depth, nuance, and all the traits that make something photographable. As the technology of digital world-building advances, as AR and VR grow increasingly immersive, and most importantly, as we spend a greater percentage of our day with our eyes on or in our devices, is there really any doubt that our desire to make pictures will migrate along with us?
If you simply loosen your definition of “game,” this migration has already occurred. A large portion of the images I see as I scroll through my Instagram feed are screenshots made in gamified digital worlds. And many of my favorite photographic endeavors right now are entirely curatorial, made without a lens: John Rafman’s “9 Eyes,” 2008–, Eric Oglander’s “Craigslist Mirrors,” 2013–, and Beñat Iturbe’s “Looney Tunes Backgrounds,” 2019–.Screenshot from Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017).
Maybe the question, then, is not when or if photography will “go digital” a second time, but rather, whether the screenshot is, in fact, a photograph. The etymology of the word, coined by Sir John Hershel, famously traces back to the Greek roots of phōto’s (light) and graphé (drawing): drawing with light. When we take a screenshot, there is no light; it’s just code capturing code in darkness. There is also no drawing taking place, no process of marking so as to represent what is real. In-game photography is, by definition, a simulacrum: representation reflecting representation.
But it’s possible that a better approach to the issue removes technology from the equation entirely. Instead of Hershel, we might refer to the pragmatic definition offered by legendary MoMA curator John Szarkowski: “One might compare the art of photography to the act of pointing.” In-game photography is certainly pointing, it’s just pointing that occurs in places that we don’t yet deem as weighty and consequential as our tangible reality. But last year the video game industry was more profitable than the pandemic-beleaguered sports and movie industries combined; 12 million people “attended” Travis Scott’s Fortnite concert; people went birding in Red Dead Redemption 2; the Getty-Polyphony deal was struck. We are clearly moving closer to a flattening of the metaphysical hierarchy that allows us to value the offline over the online. As that happens, the screenshot becomes the new snapshot. And as that happens, the discussion transitions from the topic of definitions to the topic of consequences: What is gained, and what is lost?
Gideon Jacobs is a writer who has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, BOMB Magazine, The Paris Review, and other publications, and is currently working on a collection of short fiction.