In this interview, excerpted from a longer conversation that will be featured in the TRAVELOGUE catalogue, Brazilian artist and photographer Leonardo Sang describes his fascination for video game photography.
Leonardo Sang is a graphic designer and photographer based in São Paulo, Brazil. For the past five years, he has been working on Virtual Reality Photography (VRP), an ongoing photographic investigation on what separates digital worlds from the so-called "reality". By photographing videogame environments, Sang raises important questions about the legitimacy of this binary. His work has been presented in several international exhibitions, including FLAG.CX Agency in São Paulo and Porto Alegre (2013) and Squares Events #1 exhibition in Montpellier and Toulouse (2013).
Sang's Backseats in Video Games is featured in TRAVELOGUE.
Matteo Bittanti: What is VRP and how does it relate to "conventional" digital photography?
Leonardo Sang: VRP stands for "Virtual Reality Photography". In this project, I use video games as a platform for everyday photography. My goal is to show how photographic concepts and techniques can be applied to video games. The result is called game photography. All the pictures that I take are developed just like in "real world" photography: basic compositing, alignment, lines, geometry and the likes still apply. Sometimes the outcome is just a curious snapshot. I'm not interested in creating necessarily a "visually realistic" picture. I am simply trying to rethink photography through a different medium. I prefer a minimal composition scene to highly complex shots. I also try to create "moody" scenarios. Open world and sandbox games usually allow me to achieve that goal. Sometimes interesting images might appear at complete random moments, caused by situations that I do not control. I try to catch them, before they disappear. VRP was inspired by Robert Overweg, a Belgian artist who does terrific work with video games. His Shot by Robert project was especially inspiring.
Matteo Bittanti: The road trip is a staple of American photography. Several important practitioners - from Robert Frank to Stephen Shore, from Jacob Holdt to Alec Soth - have worked in this genre. When it comes to game photography, however, very few artists have used racing games. What prompted you to take screenshots from the back seat of virtual automobiles? What kind of games did you use? Can you describe your process?
Leonardo Sang: It all started with a cutscene in Battlefield 3, where the protagonist is in the back seat and the other characters are seated up front, talking and driving, getting ready to reach their objective. In that moment, I've found myself looking outside the car windows and completely ignoring the discussion. I was clueless when we arrived at the destination and frankly, I did not care much about the mission. The landscape is what interested me. Shooting and killing, not so much. Around that time I was obsessed by Project C.A.R.S., a very realistic looking racing game. I followed its development process and played the early demo builds. One of my favourite things to do in the game was to drive very slow, like I would do in a regular automobile, cruising the city. By doing that, I was able to translate the feeling of "real" driving on a road, alone, not caring about speeding, performance, or goals. I was just enjoying the experience of being there, in the game, looking around. To me, the journey inside the car is much more emotional than reaching the destination. To take a photo, I record my performance through the replay option. Basically, I document my previous driving session and I can use the file to experiment. The recording is a copy of my driving: I do not have to control the car any longer, I can become a full photographer and pick the best angle. I place the camera behind the driver, in the backseat, even if the car in the picture does not have backseats, emulating the experience of a road trip, sitting the middle, and observing the passing landscape in complete silence. I turn off the soundtrack. I just look. I have experimented with games like Project C.A.R.S. WRC 3, Dirt Rally, and Battlefield 3. Most of my photographs are in black & white because I think road trips should be shot in this palette.
Matteo Bittanti: You have developed several projects as a game-photographer. What are the main affinities and differences between digital photography (from DSLR cameras to smartphone) and your practice with video games? Do you regard virtual photography as a genre of photography or as a something else altogether, for instance, screengrabbing?
Leonardo Sang: The differences between video game photography and digital photography has more to do with form than content. At a conceptual level, these two practices are very similar. The main difference can be found at hardware level. A digital camera allows the photographer to control important details and variables like speed, focus, depth of focus, lenses, etc, which are essential to create a specific image, but in the end, the outcome is a digital files: a raw file, a jpeg, a tiff... Some video games today include features of modern DSLR cameras, not to mention sophisticated in-game photo editors, although they are not comparable to the power and flexibility of either a Canon Mark III or Photoshop. However, in video games, you get the freedom of movement, you can experiment, shoot from different angles and capture details that would be very hard, if not impossible, in the real world. Game photography allows you to do and see things that do not exist, surreal situations that only belong to the ludic world. My role as a photographer is to document these instances. In my opinion, video game photography is a new genre of photography and should be treated as such.
Matteo Bittanti: What is your relationship with video games, and specifically racing games?
Leonardo Sang: Video games have been a constant presence in my life. I have been playing digital games since I was a kid. I have always been amazed that such amazing worlds could exist on the screen, worlds made of pixels and bright colors. These spaces are "real" and alive to me. I also love cars and I found myself naturally driven to racing games, no pun intended. Initially, the vast majority of racing games that I played featured "arcade" controls and physics, which was very cool at first, but it felt very odd to make a turn at 250 km/h in the rain and be perfectly fine. Eventually, I started playing more realistic games, simulation-like titles. They really show you that racing is not that simple and requires a lot of skill and effort. I found simulation games much more compelling and challenging than arcade games.
Matteo Bittanti: Today, companies like nVidia are actively promoting the practice of game photography with their latest graphic cards, all in the name of "digital realism". In a sense, a fringe practice is becoming institutionalized and few genres are becoming dominant. Something similar happened to machinima in the early Zeroes. Do you think that hyper-realism will become the de facto standard of game photography or do you think that artists will push for more experimental, abstract styles?
Leonardo Sang: I have already seen people focusing on hyper-realism. They go for ultra-detailed graphics in their game photography practice. In fact, there is a huge, dedicated community of "hyper-realist game photographers" on the net. Their approach is very specific and their criterion for quality could not be clearer. But there are all sorts of game photographic styles nowadays. I think that the new tools and technologies that manufactures are providing will benefit all the communities, not just the photographers obsessed with realism. The more resources are available, the more experimental projects can - and will - become.
La traduzione italiana è sotto