On Gameboy Camera Galleries & Lithophanes — an interview with Cat Graffam

Callum Beaney: Where did the idea for the Gameboy Camera Gallery 2022 come from? Over COVID-19 we’ve had all sorts of attempts at virtual reality exhibitions, however this feels much more fitting for the work shown.

Cat Graffam: So the initial inspiration for the game came from the combination of falling in love with the Game Boy camera myself this past year (I have always had an affinity for modded GB hardware) as well as participating in the Zium Gallery, a virtual gallery that just released. I was like “huh, I wonder if anyone has made a gallery game just for game boy camera photos?” and I couldn’t find any so I thought I’d take a crack at it. I also have a background in curation as the former exhibitions director of Gallery 263 in Cambridge MA, so I brought all those interests together! 

I’ve noticed the Gameboy format getting a little more attention recently, be it as emulator files or as new physical cassette releases. Would you say getting hold of one of these cameras and getting them working is relatively easy, or is there any technical work required?
Also, have you ever played the game Ib? I got a similar kind of vibe walking through the galleries, minus the horror element!

Yes, I think there definitely has been an increase in interest for the gameboy format! I think part of that is due to the Analogue Pocket releasing and being a huge success, as well as GB Studio being really accessible to new game developers (like me). I think also millennials are now more nostalgia fueled for that era. I wouldn’t say the GB camera is exactly 100% plug-and-play for sharing photos, and does require the purchasing of some other devices, but it is easier now than in the past! The GB Operator by Epilogue just released and is the most straightforward option for folks looking to transfer GB camera photos easily. Other options require a bit more know-how (like the GBxCart) but aren’t too hard at all. 

I haven’t played Ib, I remember when it came out but never got around to going through it. I really need to! Yume Nikki is one of my favorite games though, and I think Ib takes clear inspiration from it, as have I, so I think the comparison makes a lot of sense! 

Pocket Camera & Pocket Printer © Game Boy Band Pepino

How do you think about that tendency of ours? Nostalgia can be something pretty unhealthy, but it could also be something more like revisiting with fresh eyes, right? Something I kind of keyed into when researching the GB camera community is that it seems totally separate from the art world photography circles. It seems a little more wholesome, more about having fun than getting the next publishing deal or gallery opportunity.

I think as long as a project isn’t purely riding on nostalgia, and can actually stand on its own as a concept, it isn’t unhealthy to me. Also, especially in the last couple of years, I wouldn’t blame anyone for deriving joy from pure nostalgia. The world sucks right now.

I think there is a space for “serious” art and for “fun” art and both have validity in their respective contexts.

I also completely agree as someone who has worked extensively in running fine art spaces and has their own career as an exhibiting artist. Getting away from that pressure is one of the things that drove me to the GB camera in the first place. It was actually advertised originally as “funtography” and I think that is still true today. People are in love with this little camera and create things with it out of pure enjoyment. I wanted to keep that spirit which is why I didn’t open up submissions beyond the GB camera club discord (so that it was more of a friend-focused and community driven project), nor charge any type of entry fee, and accepted at least one photo from each submitter. The game will also be free to play so that anybody can experience it! It was absolutely a project of love. In doing the project this way I actually made friends who helped bring the project to life and it has been lovely.

I have kind of left the physical fine art world (apart from the gallery that represents me) because it is so exhausting, nepotistic, and investment-focused. There are great people doing great things (non-profit community art spaces/art centers) but it is hard to find!

I did notice some photos in the gallery looked digitally manipulated, but for others I’m not sure. Those water-like abstracts are pretty hard to figure out (and are also gorgeous) — how did you select what work went in, and based on what criteria?

I think you are right that some of them are digitally manipulated in-post, which for me I think is fine so long as the base image is taken on actual hardware. I feel the same about film, too. For jurying the submissions, I had folks submit up to 3 images via a google form. The only base requirement was that it was taken on an actual GB Camera. There were some technical hurdles to get some images to display correctly, but it worked out in the end!  I wanted to include at least one photo from each submitter to remove the idea that there was a level of “exclusivity”, but I think in future iterations I may change that or have a more direct theme.

I chose the image(s) from each person that I felt best utilized the unique quality the GB camera produces (abstraction, texture, simplification and sometimes almost a “tilt-shift” effect) but tried to have the best balance of subject matter as was possible at the same time. I actually hand-drew each of the miniature versions you see in the catalogue and on the walls, too haha.

ABOVE: Polaroid/gouache works by Cat Graffam from the series Object Permanence

Going through the gallery again, something I really love is that some of these are really hard to grok at a first look. With some you have an idea of what you’re looking at, but it’s so broken down into shapes and pixels that it’s hard to really feel sure. And then you check the caption, and you realise “Oh, that isn’t a slice of cake on the plate, it’s two pieces of sushi!”. There’s a nice guessing-game element, but it also feels a bit like when a friend shows me an old phone snap or something.

I guess what I love about this is how some shots feel very “amateur photography” in a fun kind of way. Others are just straight up snaps, something you might take with a polaroid as a memento of a nice thing with no pretensions to art. As an aesthetic experience, I actually find that really rewarding. I mean they’re wrapped up in a very well-designed package (the game, gallery etc) but they don’t feel how a very well-designed, £40 photobook might where it’s obliged to be all so serious and *deep*.

The abstract component was what really drew me to some of the photos, just like the sushi photo you are describing. It almost becomes pixel art rather than a photo and I think that blend is unique and really rarely possible. I’m not sure if we will look at slightly older technology like old cellphone cameras the same way! 

I struggled with how I felt about the “pedestrian” style photos, as someone coming from a fine art background and jurying art exhibitions with hundreds of submissions. I am really glad that you enjoyed them in their own unique way. I think they bring the “fun” just like you said (like the two pikachus looking at each other) and they are a really honest look at the entire spectrum of folks who use the game boy camera and are involved in the community. It is a neat survey of it all. I think there is a space for “serious” art and for “fun” art and both have validity in their respected contexts. It is funny because I think instant photography is viewed very similarly! 

A 3D-printed lithophane by Cat

I’ve often thought about how darkroom printers speak about their images magically appearing in the chemicals below the deep red light — the “crafty” element to artmaking gets looked down upon a lot (unless it’s some kind of clever meta-thing), but it really does matter to most of us.

Where do you think you’ll take what you’ve been doing from here? I know you’ve been working on things like lithophanes, and your painted pixel polaroids (above) — I notice that you’ve got a bit of a love for modern day adaptations of historical mediums in general — I’d love to see your takes on further mediums!

I think you are absolutely right about folks who do darkroom printing. There is an immense amount of ritual and magic that cannot be replicated digitally by just scanning negatives (which is what I do, oops). 

I think you have spotted the through-thread of my work, haha. I am a big art history nerd and I love the limitations and challenges older mediums present when married with present day practices and technology. I have no clue what my long term trajectory is, I think my ADHD never allows me to stay fixated on something forever, I need to be constantly learning and trying something different. 

There will be a Game Boy Camera Gallery 2023 or 2024, depending on how busy the next year gets. The plan is to switch up the visual presentation and gameplay so that it doesn’t just feel like the same project with different photos. I am thinking about creating a point-and-click adventure-style game for the next iteration. It is an underused genre for the hardware! My idea is that submissions will follow a theme to base the game around, which I think will help with some cohesiveness. I also have a book for my polaroid paintings in the works and another separate GB game that I am making unrelated to the GB camera! 

Play the GAME BOY CAMERA GALLERY 2022

Cat Graffam (website)
@catherinegraffam