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Work / Photography

Dylan James Nelson’s “virtual” works challenge our definition of photography

“It’s a very simple thing to say and it sounds overly romantic, but quality of light is still so exciting to me,” says Minneapolis-based photographer Dylan James Nelson. “Whether you stumble into something wonderful or whether you actually understand it well enough to make it happen. Light is everything.” A fascinating portfolio of images as confusing as they are compelling, Dylan’s work questions the very nature of photography and what it can be.

It’s no surprise, then, that Dylan counts Jeff Wall as a major influence on his practice. An artist who pioneered photography as a conceptual, fine-art medium and not just a means of reportage, Wall also refers to his process of working as “cinematographic”. At the time he discovered Wall’s work, Dylan had been pursuing filmmaking, in love with “the technical elements of creating a world” but was disillusioned by the complicated nature of creating moving image. “I was completely drawn into the idea of making little worlds one image at a time. It had different outcomes, but was giving me a sense of control that I think I was wanting then,” he recalls.

Today, Dylan’s own practice is contributing to the conversation surrounding what defines photography. “Must it be lens-based? Do you have to be the one who made the image? What sort of post-production interventions are we letting slide? This is by no means a new discussion,” he remarks, “but we are using technology in very interesting ways right now that I think opens up the world to new interpretations – opens up new worlds, even.”

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Dylan James Nelson: Wildlands

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Dylan James Nelson: Wildlands

In his series Wildlands, Dylan set about replicating the images he had so far created in the real world, in an entirely virtual one. To create the images, he used a software released in 2016 which allows you to “walk” around and take high-resolution pictures within select computer games. “When I read about the tech, I went about building a PC and downloading some games,” he explains. When “walking” around these games, “I was trying to find signs of life and also scenes that were mundane enough to pass as believable, with little blips along the way,” he says.

The series is an exploration of parallel realities and the notion of serendipity and itinerant experiences in a virtual space. Notions which have long formed the backbone of photography, most notably in street photography, Dylan’s approach highlights the complex, layered nature of gaming and virtual worlds. “Not to mention they parallel people’s real-world habits, the circular paths our day-to-day takes, the repetition and routine,” he continues, “I think exploring the gaming space through the practice of documentation really questions the construction of our real-world lives too – they’re not disconnected phenomena.”

Perhaps most interestingly, Wildlands is a commentary on what constitutes the “real” world anyway. “A recent study showed that Americans spend an average of 11 hours a day consuming some form of media,” says Dylan. “When you consider the number of waking hours in a day it is clear that more and more of our life is actually spent inside of the internet and these devices.” Although he advocates that “we should all go outside more”, Dylan’s series argues that “in a way, making pictures inside a virtual space is more relatable now than going out and making pictures in the real world.”

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Dylan James Nelson: Wildlands

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Dylan James Nelson: Wildlands

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Dylan James Nelson: Wildlands

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Dylan James Nelson: Three Pages

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Dylan James Nelson: Three Pages

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Dylan James Nelson: Three Pages

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Dylan James Nelson: Three Pages