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I was interested to read, recently, a bitter debate on the Flickr forums about whether or not Second Life photography and other computer game and virtual world photography was real photography, and separately, whether all of those images were ruining Flickr.

It was a distressing read, because people were talking about things near to their hearts but in defensive and divisive ways, but it brought up some fascinating points, some of which have been on my mind for quite a while.

"Novus City" by Nico Time

Is Second Life photography actually photography, or is it digital art?

For that matter, is it art at all?

Even if it is art, whose art is it? The person who composes the picture using the photo feature in Second Life or another tool? The graphic artists who created the assets that are being photographed? Someone else? Everybody?

And is there even any reason to care?

"Wandering off the Path," again by Nico Time. You can see I love his work.

Let's talk about the art and authorship questions first. In the discussion I was reading, clearly some non-digital-world people were thinking of images taken of virtual worlds as being simply user clips of some game artist's creation. This can happen in Second Life, at least mostly, for instance if I go to Da Vinci Gardens and take a picture of a dragon flying past the castle there. The dragon, the castle, the landscape, and even the dragon's flight path are designed.

But in other situations, and even in that one, we know there's more to it, especially when avatars are involved. For a building, you might have the structure designed by one person, textures used for parts of the structure--brick, glass, wood floors, and so on--by several others, furniture by others, and so on. Avatars are much more complicated, with everything from shoes to hair to skin to eyelashes designed by different people, and sometimes more than one person. Than you have a shape that might have been designed by the user or by a separate artist, and whoever brought all of those elements together onto the avatar, usually mostly the user. Clothing is not only selected, purchased, and coordinated, but also fit to the body. An animation override or animation or pose determines how the avatar is positioned. Each of us, each avatar, is a work of art in her, him, or theirself!

"Celestial Beings" by Caitlin 'Caity' Tobias

And of course all of this is true for each avatar, and there may be several in the photo, or in the most extreme case, dozens. Avatars and builds and environment together, meanwhile, run on top of umpteen thousands of aesthetic and technical decisions made by Lindens in creating and gradually improving Second Life as an environment in the first place.

To that you add the photographer's own selection, framing, composition, timing, perhaps posing of subjects, usually Windlight setting selection (where the Windlight setting might have been created by yet another person), and other decisions, and you have a collaborative artistic effort that may literally show the work of hundreds of people in a single frame! And that's before any post-processing--for instance, the blurring some people do of backgrounds to create the impression of limited depth of field.

So, that's definitely art of some kind. It can be good art or bad art, and unfortunately one bad texture or wonky animation where a hand is penetrating an avatar's side, for example, can make even a beautifully-composed photo look a little "off," but it's definitely people creating visual material in an intentional way, even if it would be impossible for many or most of the contributors to imagine the final result.

All of that might suggest that each picture in Second Life should be considered a group work, but I think that's probably not the most useful way to approach it. After all, if a First Life photographer takes a picture of a beautiful woman walking down the street, does that photographer have to share credit with the people who designed the woman's clothing, the woman herself (who has maintained her body in a certain way, chose clothes, applied makeup, selected a hairstyle, and so on), the architects and builders and painters of every building on the street, the road crews who constructed and later repaired the street, the designers of each automobile parked on the street that might be reflected in a store window in which there might be a display designed by a store clerk ... ? And what about the sunlight, the puddle from last night's rain, the tree growing nearby? Do we need to include God or Nature or evolution in the copyright notice?


"Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare" by Henri Cartier-Bresson (a First Life photographer)

Well, you see where I'm going. Photography is the art of seeing, selecting, framing, and timing an image occurring in things that (usually) the photographer has not helped make or design. Of course there can be exceptions, just as in Second Life a person can build things and then photograph them, but the thing that's unique about photography as an art is that it is all about receiving. Here is this world arrayed in front of me: what do I see in it, and how can I show other people what I'm seeing in a way that resonates and connects?

So am I saying that Second Life photography is real photography? Well, here is where I'll get picky about linguistics. When we say that Second Life photography is or isn't actual photography, we're not really saying anything about Second Life: what we're trying to say something about is photography. Does photography as an idea include "photographing" things that don't physically exist? And there is no definitive answer to that, and can't be, because when different people use the word "photography," they mean different things by it. It makes perfect sense to mean, by "photography," "making images of things as you encounter them in the physical world." It also makes perfect sense to mean "making or combining images of things you find or set up." Or choose your own definition: regardless of common usage, regardless of usefulness, and regardless of the Oxford English Dictionary, two people can both use that word and legitimately mean completely different things by it. Since we can't tell each other what to mean when we speak, then as long as the word is communicating effectively to some people some of the time, we have to accept any definition as legitimate.

"That Time of Day" by Nico Time

Second Life photography is real photography. And it isn't. And it sometimes is, but sometimes isn't.

With that out of the way, being the "let's settle this once and for all" kind of person I am, I'd like to gently suggest that the most useful definition of "photography" does include Second Life photography, because the principles and process are so similar to First Life photography. I know that some people will still disagree vehemently and say that it isn't photography, but rather digital art, but I think that's misleading. To me, at least, the term "digital art" implies that someone is creating something rather than receiving, selecting, and framing. It suggests to me that colors are being chosen and applied, strokes traced, forms conceived and executed. Including virtual world photography in "digital art" makes the term "digital art" less useful, and excluding it from photography makes "photography" about things that aren't central to that artistic process.

That's my two cents, anyway. What about yours?

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