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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