Photography purists often scoff at the concept of video game photography, but interdisciplinary artist Sam Bulleit might change minds with his process that turns in-game photos into cyanotype prints.
Just like many gamers who enjoy in-game photography tools, Bulleit is a photographer who started his career in the mid-2010s capturing the culture of the area near his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. After moving to Illinois to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he began his work on what he calls his first major photographic project called The Tsushima Cyanotypes.
Bulleit says that this project came about from the circumstances of the time.
Ghost of Tsushima
“At the beginning of the pandemic, everything came out from under me. There weren’t any shoots, the studios were closed, my work dried up, my campus had shut down,” Bulleit explains. “Being stuck inside, I got pretty desperate for entertainment and I’d started watching my roommate play video games all day. He’s the one who showed me Ghost of Tsushima.”
Ghost of Tsushima was released in the summer of 2020 and went on to be one of the most critically acclaimed games of the year. The action-adventure game was developed by Sucker Punch Productions and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment, debuting on both he PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. The game takes place during the first Mongol invasion of Japan — the year 1281 — and the player controls Jin Sakai, a fictional samurai who is fighting to take back the island of Tsushima from invaders.
While the gameplay of Ghost of Tsushima was well received, it was more the game’s stylized environments that caught most players’ attention. Bulleit says that gaming was never a major interest of his before, but after seeing what Ghost of Tsushima looked like, his interest was piqued.
“I’ve never been a big gamer, but I’d wanted to play that one. I was totally sucked in by the beauty of everything. Tsushima reminded me of the magic I’d once seen so easily in the world around me here in Chicago, and I owe a lot of very real experiences to that place,” Bulleit says. “The artists over at Suckerpunch Studios who develeoped this game really made something special here.”
From Video Game to Cyanotype
Bulleit explains that starting the process of creating one of his cyanotypes is really not all that different in this case than if he was doing it in a more traditional method.
“The process begins like taking any other kind of photograph, I just reach for a PlayStation controller instead of my camera,” he says.
“I’d take a virtual photo walk across Tsushima Island, scouting out new locations, noting how light landed at different times of day, studying how people and animals moved through certain areas, the whole process was shockingly similar to how I thought about taking photos in ‘real life.’ It wasn’t until pretty far into the project that anyone showed me the features of the game’s built-in photo mode, which is really impressive stuff,” he continues.
“That can give you control over all kinds of things, even the weather conditions or the time of day. However, I made it a rule to limit myself to basic controls like my focal length and depth of field. It’s just more fun that way.”
Bulleit says that once he spent a few hours making photos in this manner, he pulled the images off his PlayStation and loaded them into Lightroom on his computer where he would pick out his favorites to start making prints.
“In Photoshop I’ll perform most of my edits, invert the image to create a negative, print it out on a sheet of transparency film, and I’ve basically got a 12×16 inch film negative to work with,” he says.
“Then I’ll coat the paper with an emulsion, which is by far the most complicated part. I’ve spent quite a bit of time practicing different coating methods and studying different kinds of cyanotype chemistry which gives me a lot of control over the shape and texture of the print,” he continues.
“Once the right coating is made. I lay the negative across it and expose the paper under a UV sun tanning booth lamp for usually between four and five minutes. Then, I simply wash the print under cool water and it’s done!”
Bulleit says that’s a simplified version of his process, and adds that there is a lot of nuance to getting a finished print he’s happy with.
“Some of these prints come out easily, but there are others I’ll put upwards of 12 hours into before I consider it ready. Each one is 100% unique and can’t be replicated either.”
Bulleit says he’s often asked why he decided to go with this process, and he admits it was kind of a way to elicit those kinds of questions from people.
“Initially, I was worried that no one would accept my photos just as screenshots from the game. When I started printing them as cyanotypes, I noticed that they abstract and blur the image just enough that most people couldn’t tell if what they were looking at was real or not. I even had people asking me how I’d gotten into Asia during quarantine!”
Video Game Photography as Art
As mentioned, video game photography is often heavily criticized as “not real art” by photographers. Bulleit disagrees.
“I’m 1000% in support of video game photography as an artistic medium. There already is a precedent for this kind of work in the world. I’m not the first or last to do it, and I do hope to see it get more popular. These virtual parts of our life are becoming increasingly more intertwined with our ‘real’ world around us, whether they be our video games, social media apps, favorite podcasts, or whatever else,” he says.
“I wonder what happens when we step back and think of the memories that our virtual worlds have given us, and all those little simulations that shaped the people we are now. I think more and more people are catching onto how real these moments can be, so I won’t be surprised to see more work about it in the coming years at all.”
While Bulleit has considered other games that might go well with certain print styles — he says he considered Van Dyke Brown prints or Orotones using Read Dead Redemption photos — he’s giving video games a break, at least for now.
“My artistic practice is mainly about looking at the borders between things, the spots where lines blur, where one thing becomes something else and there’s so many different examples of that for me to investigate,” he says.
“What excited me about this project so much was the opportunity it gave me to talk about the very real experiences I’ve had in a place so many people consider to still be ‘just a video game’, and I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling these days.”
Image credits: Sam Bulleit