Leonardo Magrelli, West of Here

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Yoffy Press (here). Hardcover, 9 x 6.5 inches, 80 pages, with 40 black-and-white reproductions. Includes essays by Brit Salvesen and Mirjam Kooiman. In an edition of 400 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Leonardo Magrelli’s West of Here is one of the most deceptively complex and unexpectedly thought provoking photobooks of the year. For those steeped in the history of American photography, a quick flip of West of Here will seem utterly familiar. The photographs are black and white, the setting is contemporary Los Angeles, and the style is mid-1970s New Topographics, where the gritty underbelly of the sprawling city is seen with deadpan formality and sun-blasted clarity.

Or is it? A close look at many of the pictures reveals small areas of detail that appear either hyper real or not quite entirely authentic, as though they have been manipulated by our now ubiquitous software tools and filters. And it is with this creeping realization that we suddenly drop down through the proverbial rabbit hole, coming out into a world, and a set of photographs of that world,  that we now realize aren’t what we think they are.

All of the “photographs” in West of Here (and we’ll get back to the shifting definition of a photograph in a minute) were taken inside the virtual world of Grand Theft Auto V, the immensely popular 2013 video game. Player avatars can make in-game photos using the Snapmatic app, thereby making it possible to document moments of life lived inside the game. The images in West of Here were taken by a variety of players and shared online, where Magrelli sourced them. He then went on select and crop the views, and render them in black and white, leading to the images presented in the book.

The action takes place in the imaginary but meticulously real city of Los Santos, which copies the fabric of Los Angeles with eerie accuracy. A thumbnail list of images in the back of the photobook locates each of the included pictures at an exact spot, not only in a named neighborhood, but often at a specific intersection, on a particular street, or at a named building or city landmark. The world of Los Santos replicates this reality with remarkable fidelity, from the lo-rise architecture of LA strip malls and apartment blocks and the march of highway overpasses, electrical towers, and wind turbines down to cracks in the pavement, weeds in the gutter, and the individual fronds of palm trees. As a fictional universe, it gets the in-between and transitional zones of the city just right, and realistically bathes them in the punishingly white light of southern California.

The simplest conclusion to be drawn from West of Here is that it is now possible to appropriate a photographic style and successfully apply it to a virtual world, creating images that faithfully recreate the aesthetic mood of the originals, albeit as layered atop entirely software-generated subject matter. And while Magrelli’s photographs of beach lifeguard huts, smoggy downtown skylines, forgettable neighborhood streets, graffiti-covered alleys, and nighttime views of the ambient light of the city and starry desert skies all capture the visual essence of today’s LA, it is less the images themselves and more their broader proof of concept that feels important here. Magrelli has done something we haven’t really seen before, and now we have to wrestle with the implications of that new reality.

As our lives are increasingly moving to some version of the metaverse (which would include video game environments), it seems only natural that we will want to document, save, and share our experiences there. So making “photographs” inside these artificial worlds will become increasingly commonplace, and as that occurs, so should the desire of some to not just take ordinary snapshots of car crashes, bloody battles, and themselves (as avatars or characters) but to make their own artistic interpretations of the fabric of those worlds. Magrelli’s photobook is an example of this instinctual response, and we should expect to see more work like this going forward. Cao Fei was an early innovator in this space, with her screenshots and videos of scenes from her Second Life virtual world, and Magrelli’s project updates and expands the possibilities of that work – as virtual worlds become more and more “real-looking”, so can the “photographs” of those worlds.

Is this “photography”? Certainly not in the old-school sense of a physical camera (or even a physical print), but conceptually, it translates that earlier image-making behavior into a reasonable virtual analogue, and Magrelli’s approach turns the crank once more, applying his own editing to appropriated virtual imagery. That astonishing chain of thinking is worth repeating: we now have people routinely making photographs inside virtual worlds, and artists are then expressively re-envisioning that material, in this case tying it back to the aesthetics of an earlier photographic age.

Such a conclusion is a head-scratchingly mind-bending (and altogether exciting) moment for the medium. For the better part of two centuries, we’ve used photography to document our experience of the real world; now we’re starting to apply a version of that same thinking to our burgeoning virtual lives. The layering of creative possibilities that this enables feels breathtakingly open-ended, and will inevitably start to overlap with computer/digital/net art and the exploding world of NFTs. Magrelli effectively shows us that we can use these newfound capabilities to knowingly look backwards, thereby connecting the dots between photographic past and present. How others will leverage these same tools to instead look forward (with a photographic mindset) is even more promising. Since all of these virtual worlds are essentially created by artist/coders, “photographs” of these worlds therefore represent artistic interpretations of artistic interpretations. That nesting of creativity (and personal expression) has the potential to be much more than just fan art. West of Here feels like an enticing starting point, pointing the way to a frame-breaking set of innovation-driven photographic possibilities.

Collector’s POV: Leonardo Magrelli does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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