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Imaginary Universe: Richard Kolker’s Computer Generated Images

3 minute read

London-based artist Richard Kolker has been working exclusively with computer generated imagery (CGI) for the last six years. But the fact that he comes from a traditional photographic background, having previously worked as a commercial photographer for Getty Images, would surprise no one: Kolker’s imagined pictures of still lifes, interiors and landscapes are rendered with such precision and clarity that they appear like true, documentary shots.

Inspired by the bubbled Vancouver Real Estate market, the online virtual world Second Life and games such as World of Warcraft, which both rely heavily on GCI, Kolker sought to create images that were the antithesis of the aesthetic found in these programs. “I wanted to create images that reflected a more mundane nature, as opposed to the more fascinating environments people were experiencing through the anonymity of an avatar,” he says.

That quieter mood is seen in the image created for Kolker in this week’s education-themed issue of TIME. For a story that examines the potential of free online courses to upend traditional higher education, Kolker created a dark image of an empty classroom. “A lot of my photos have this dark shadowy entity to it,” he explains. “I wanted to convey the emptiness with this classroom image—like all the life has been taken out.”

Kolker’s images typically take a couple days to create. And while the method may be seen as unconventional, he says the process itself feels similar to actual shooting. “I build a model like I would with plastic or cardboard, and I light it as I would in real life—but just with digital tools,” Kolker says. “And then I photograph it with a computer tool [Maxon Cinema 4D] that has a shutter speed and aperture—so in many ways, it’s fairly conventional.”

For the most part, Kolker relies on his self-described “vivid imagination” to conceptualize pictures, although he’ll use an actual photograph as a starting point from time to time. In one series, “Reference, Referents,” Kolker looked to famous works by artists whose pieces recalled photographic elements, including David Hockney, and tried to recreate the perfect picture that might have inspired said work.

He still carries cameras around when he travels, but says he never takes pictures anymore, preferring to continue his CGI work. “The whole world is shifting from analog to digital, and I love thinking about this digital code that you can use to create images of places around the world without ever having to go there,” Kolker says. “I love the total freedom of it—the ability to create whatever it is in your imagination or fantasy.”

Richard Kolker is an artist based in the U.K. See more of his work here.

Gumball from the series Trap Code, 2012 "Much of my work deals with how we engage with, explore and document online virtual worlds and online role-playing games. 'Trap Code' examines the idea that we define the limitless freedom of the online environment by imposing physical restrictions and constraints with which we are familiar in the real world—gravity, solid matter, real estate and land values, avatars which look human. We have to be restrained in order to engage with unfamiliar freedom. 'Gumball' represents a familiar cultural icon (I think!…I’m from London and some things aren’t quite the same here!), but simultaneously diverges from normality in a distinctly sinister manner."Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker
Concorde from the series Trap Code, 2012 "I used to live quite near Heathrow airport and every day at about 7:20 p.m. Concorde used to fly overhead. Despite it being a frequent occurrence it was always a breathtaking sight. Something so beautiful and seemingly out of place; it was one of those occasions when reality almost seems harder to believe than unreality. Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker
Flat from the series Trap Code, 2012 "'Flat' represents the ‘normalness’ of role-playing in a virtual environment. Indeed, given the real life anonymity of participants one could argue that this freedom leads to a player’s real personality becoming more prominent. These online social role-playing worlds can be very rewarding; real friendships between players can be made, we can re-define, through the creation of an avatar, how we wish to present ourselves to others, and experiences and encounters made online build an accumulation of memories that is independent from those made in the real world. In a similar way to the lead character in the ‘Truman Show,’ it is possible, almost, to lead a normal life in a simulated environment." Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker
Cotan 1, Cotan 2, Cotan 3 (L-R) from the series Around a Bodegon—after Juan Sanchez Cotan 1602, 2012 "I made this response to Juan Sanchez Cotan’s 'Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber' as an alternative way to look at the three dimensions of the computer’s virtual space. Cotan’s still life is a very well known painting and has been referenced before by other artists (eg. Ori Gersht 'Pomegranate,' 2006). I was particularly struck by the overall stillness of the piece and by the preciseness of both the composition and of Cotan’s handling of the light; the overall feel is quite mathematical. The stark shape and form of the fruit reflect the geometric primitives that comprise the building blocks of the 3D computer generated space. There is also a real/unreal conflict in the painting that similarly refers to that inherent in CGI; the fruit appear both very naturalistic whilst at the same time bizarrely suspended on strings in a heavy frame, cloaked by a dense black negative space.There is definitely an unsettling tension and instability too; the slightest breeze, you imagine, could cause the quince and cabbage to sway and twist or even slip from their knotted strings."Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker
"Idris Khan, Every...Bernd and Hilla Becher Spherical Type Gasholder 2003" from the series Reference, Referents, 2011 "In the mid-19th century it was thought that photography’s primary use would be as a painting aid, and in 'Referents, Reference' I wanted to explore this relationship between these two media. I wanted to select images by artists who have had some relationship with either the medium itself, David Hockney for example, or at least with the consideration of photographic representation. My aim was to take an iconic artwork as a starting point and create the imaginary reference photograph the artist may or may not have used. Creating a sort of ‘realism filter’ of perspective and single viewpoint through which to view the original piece. In doing so I constructed a 3D computer simulation from a flat 2D painting which I then rendered out as a 2D image.For this image I took certain elements from each of the Bechers' images of spherical gasholders and incorporated them into a single computer model; a similar principle to Idris Khan digitally layering each Becher photograph to create a single image."Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker
"Thomas Demand, Tunnel 1999" from the series Reference, Referents, 2011 "Thomas Demand’s 'Tunnel' is a short moving image piece of a camera animation through a road tunnel remarkably similar (although, not actually stated to be so) to the Alma tunnel in Paris in which Princess Diana died. The real tunnel is straight whereas Demand’s is curved, but taking his piece as a starting point I created an interpretation of a reference image he could have used."Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker
"Georgia O'Keefe, Radiator Building 1927" from the series Reference, Referents, 2011 "Georgia O’Keefe apparently defied husband Alfred Stieglitz’s advice and took a break from painting flowers to concentrate on more ‘masculine’ subjects such as skyscrapers. I used current photographs of New York’s ‘Radiator Building’ as my reference to build a 3D computer model, which took hours! If I’m honest I think it’s the least successful of the series and Georgia O’Keefe’s original is obviously infinitely more effective!"Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker
Playground from the series The Game, 2008 "'The Game' was a series that formed my MA/MFA portfolio. The images in this series portray the moment at which the real and the virtual worlds meet. Not physically at the interface of a computer screen, but psychologically as the player recognizes the blurring of the real/unreal boundary and is aware of the conflict that exists in his time being divided between the two.The images are constructed using the 3D modeling techniques of the video game industry, but instead of showing escapist or fantasy environments they reflect the more mundane nature of the players’ everyday lives.All the images are visual representations of emotional triggers and 'Playground'—at night it is a dark, sinister place where children never go."Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker
One Evening, Any Evening from the series The Game, 2008 "This is another image in the collection of emotional triggers that comprise this series. Possibly a little 'stereotypy' in its iconography but the images are ‘thoughts’ and not documents of real life, and we often think in terms of stereotypical visual signifiers."Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker
Basin from the series House, 2010 "It is now possible to create an image that looks more or less like a photograph but without a real world referent or even a visual reference. The hyperrealist paintings of Richard Estes, Robert Bechtle and others, look ‘photographic’ but are based on photographic reference prints. I wanted to create a small series of images of intimate domestic spaces which although imaginary are universally familiar. They do leave small visual clues, in a similar way to the photographs of Thomas Demand, as to their constructed nature. Also, like Demand’s images, there is a kind of vacuum present where all life and all ‘happening’ has been evacuated."Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker
Window from the series The Game, 2008 "Although the window is open the room feels more oppressive than if it were closed. There is an almost solid feel to the absolute blackness of computer-generated nothingness. I wanted to create the impression that although escapism online can be truly beneficial in many ways, there is a sense in which it ultimately disappoints."Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker
Gents from the series The Game, 2008 "'Gents' is obviously a portrayal of a male gendered space. Computer games are still predominantly male orientated although to a lesser extent than was previously the case. I wanted to explore the physicality of inhabiting a non-physical environment. Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) are deeply immersive, sometimes to the exclusion of real physical needs. 'A man in southern China appears to have died of exhaustion after a three-day internet gaming binge, state media said Monday. The 30-year-old man fainted at a cyber cafe in the city of Guangzhou Saturday afternoon after he had been playing games online for three days. Paramedics tried to revive him but failed and he was declared dead at the café.'The degree of immersion, however, is not dependent on the degree of photorealism of the environment, and this is the rationale behind this series being cruder in construction and more obviously referencing a ‘video game’ aesthetic."Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker
Wednesday Night from the series Night, 2007/8 "This image is from my first series of computer generated imagery. I wanted to create a Hopper-esque type realism within a very English context. Still un-aspirational and still referencing the anti-escapist reflection of mundane everyday life."Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker
"Hammershoi, The Four Rooms 1914" from the series Reference, Referents, 2011 "Although Hammershoi’s quiet, understated, melancholic paintings are around 100-years-old they feel remarkably modern. The soft light and limited color palette, too, have a very contemporary and photographic style.As I was working on the reconstruction of his image in the three dimensions of the computer I found that Hammershoi’s composition was remarkably photographic too. My single viewpoint and perspective view of the work coincided precisely with his."Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker
A computer generated image created to illustrate TIME's education story College Is Dead. Long Live College! in the Oct. 29 issue of the magazine. "I wanted to create the feeling of an empty university classroom, locked up and discarded as no longer being relevant. I feel the image works well and importantly compliments the fascinating piece by Amanda Ripley. Although the image is constructed from within 3D computer modeling software the methodology is fairly conventionally photographic, i.e. construct the set and light it with virtual lights the properties of which are based on 'real world physics' algorithms. I then set up a virtual camera and began the render process. This, depending on the specification of your computer, can be a lengthy process. In this case—just under three hours."Computer Generated Image by Richard Kolker for TIME

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