New Technology is Making it More Difficult to Conceptualize Photography


A few weeks ago, I found myself wandering around a local career fair — the type of event I normally find pretty loathsome, or at least overcrowded an unhelpful. This time though, a fun surprise: representatives from Snapchat and Shutterfly stood at booths right next to each other.

Oh boy! I couldn’t turn down the chance to chat with some folks more or less connected to the photo industry.

The more interesting, or at least more relevant, conversation took place at the Snapchat booth. This was just a couple of months after one of Instagram’s cofounders publicly stated that he didn’t think of Instagram as a photography company, so I posed the same question about Snapchat to one of the women standing at their booth; photography or no?

Her answer was a definitive no. It’s really more like a text message, she told me.

Debates over the boundaries of photography have raged for centuries now. For a long time, experts and amateurs alike argued heatedly about photography’s legitimacy as a fine art. More recently, the line between photography and digital painting has been called into question when the use of photo editing software significantly alters the final image.

To be sure, an offhand comment by one representative does not necessarily reflect the views of the whole organization, but it seems odd to think that an image captured using Snapchat or Instagram would fail to meet the definition of a photograph.

Sure, they’re probably not fine art photography most of the time. Snapchat’s distinguishing feature is, after all, that its images self-delete (well, kind of) after being viewed for just a few seconds.

Even then, surely they’d meet the technical definition of a photograph. The images are created, after all, when a user trips a digital shutter and captures an array of light that passes through a lens onto a photo sensitive sensor. On the other hand, they’re hardly used or experienced in the way photographs traditionally have been.


Meanwhile, the rapidly shifting technological landscape has permitted the rise of a class of art that uses a lot of the concepts that underly artistic photography, but rely on alien methods of capture. For example, artists like Doug Rickard have made a name for themselves by sifting through millions of stills on Google Street View to find images that are compositionally and dramatically compelling. Not only is the “photographer” in this case completely uninvolved in the creation of the original image, but its true creator is an automated camera simply snapping away as it’s trundled along by car or trolley or backpack.

Photographers of digital environments (let’s call them virtual photographers) are even more difficult to categorize. Recently, this subject has been most frequently broached while discussing the video game Grand Theft Auto V.

Thanks to a beautifully realized explorable world, and a built-in camera that allows players to capture images from a first person perspective using their character’s smartphone, Grand Theft Auto V has launched a slew of efforts to explore the world created by its developers through virtual photography.

A standout in this genre is the Flickr Group Landscape Photographers of Los Santos and Blaine County, which includes hundreds of members dedicated to creating landscape photographs using only the world of Grand Theft Auto. Another is street photographer Fernando Pereira Gomes who uses the game to capture virtual street photographs featured on his blog Street Photography V. Without a doubt, these artists eschew the traditional conception of photography for something that’s both strikingly different and unexpectedly familiar.

I say unexpectedly familiar because a quick browse through the material reveals a host of subjects that are reminiscent, even derivative, of traditional photography styles. Their “landscapes” capture sunsets while making conspicuous use of compositional tenets like the Rule of Thirds. Their street shots pay attention to elements like dramatic lighting and the Critical Moment.

Not to mention, for both Rickard and Gomes, the process of making virtual photography isn’t so different from that used by any other street photographers in that it involves moving around an environment while keeping a sharp eye out for potential compositions in a constantly moving world. The only difference being that, for these two, the environment is made pixels rather than people.


Perhaps you’ll say that an attempt to classify this or that outlier to a general trend is irrelevant and unproductive, and there’s probably some truth to that, but comparing services like Snapchat to virtual realities like Grand Theft Auto V allows one to focus on the defining aspects of the science and art of photography.

Looked at a certain way, only one and never both could be called photography. Either you define a photograph by the process with which it’s created, in which case a Snapchat is certainly a photograph, or you can define photography as an art style dependent on the mindset and intent of the photographer, in which case virtual photography really isn’t that different from traditional photography.

But even if it’s not particularly important to create a clear set of rules for what constitutes a photograph, these technological developments are clear indicators of a big change in the way we relate to images and imaging. One wonders whether it’s more prudent to allow traditional conceptions of photography to shift as well, or to let new artistic (or unartistic) forms separate entirely and adopt their own mantle? Perhaps it’s too soon to tell.

Image credits: Photographs by Doug Rickard/Google Street View and Fernando Pereira Gomes

  • Dmitri Tcherbadji

    I always thought that photography involved taking a snapshot of the real world (i.e. on film or on light sensor). Doesn’t matter if it is good or bad, who took it or for what purpose. What makes it creative or ‘art’ is up to the photographer and the people who judge his or her work. Photography has always involved work with effects, but that is sort of a question of mixed arts.

    Re: in-game “photography” feels more like drawing/painting to me, wheres the game is the tools that we use. Just like artists’ drawing it does not have a direct connection to the real world. People who created the environment in the game painted it. Once again, I am not trying to judge the artistic merit of anything, just trying to define it. Photography never meant good or bad, creative or uninspired – just an act of taking a picture.


  • Omar Salgado

    “The only difference being that, for these two, the environment is made pixels rather than people.”

    The difference is not the “process” or the “mindset”, not even pixels, grain or people, but light. Photography took much of pictorialism, but it is not its essence. So “waiting” or “chasing” a composition or a “moment” in a 3D “world” does not qualify screenshooters as photographers, nor is photography taking a tendency, cause it’s not photography.

    The ontology of a screenshot is not light, but computational processes. The programmers need to know about light and its properties to let the machine render it as “realistic” as it can; but the one who takes a screenshot?

    I guess I should be getting rid off exposure time, aperture and sensivity, and even a camera, right?

  • David Vaughn

    Let the battle of semantics commence!

  • Thomas Hawk

    “Don’t think about making art. Just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they’re deciding, make even more art.” – Andy Warhol

  • Eugene Chok

    hmmm what if i take an leica with tri x onto the holo deck of the enterprise and run the ‘spanish war’ program?

  • frank mckenna

    that is a great quote.

  • Richard

    Brilliant. I enjoyed reading this very much.

  • Richard


  • Theranthrope

    There’s a term to add to your lexicon when talking abut this kind of thing; when creative individuals use the tools provided by game-makers as a virtual set to create works in-game, it’s called: “Machinima”

    There’s a whole world of individuals and groups who spend a lot time and energy making new creative works using an engine designed for a different purpose. It’s more than just screenshots. Personally, I consider it more akin to photo-collage; where the “art” is defined by the -transformation- rather than the tools or source. Doujin remix-culture.

  • Omar Salgado

    Well, in its own merit, there is nothing wrong in screenshooting and nothing wrong in groups of individuals creating something new out of something intended with another purpose.

    But why call it photography or consider it akin to photo-collage when its source is not an environment, a lens, a sensible surface and a person in a real and concrete world?

    Besides, art involves the technique (and the techniques relies on technology) in that process of transformation. Art is as material as “spiritual” [just to put it some way].

  • Archie Macintosh

    Photographs are ‘indexical’, whereas composities and ‘mixed media digital art’ are not. Roland Barthes pointed out the importance of indexicality in ‘Camera Lucida’, and the idea is now central to photography theory.

    In an essay called ‘Uses of photography – for Susan Sontag’ John Berger talks about the indexical nature of a photograph (and quotes Sontag on the matter, so you get two for the price of one!):

    “Unlike any other visual image, a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace of it. No painting or drawing, however naturalist, belongs to its subject in the same way that a photograph does.

    ‘A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.’ [Susan Sontag (1977) On Photography. p154]”

    The key feature of the photograph is that it is physically, causally related to its subject, because it is a physical record of the light actually reflected off the objects in front of the camera. You can make a composite or mixed-media digital art work depicting a unicorn galloping up a rainbow, but you cannot take a photograph of a unicorn galloping up a rainbow.