I began a project documenting nature’s recovery following the 2019/2020 Australian bushfires. While discussing how to exhibit the work during this time of quarantines, lockdowns and isolation, my sister suggested, “You could do a group online ‘exhibition’ to gain interest… I have been thinking about an online zine fair — and I guess you could do something similar with prints. We’re thinking of slowly promoting a hashtag, and then on a chosen day, asking people to post their photos to the tag — which becomes a kind of gallery.”
My reply? “It would be funnier if I made it in Minecraft”.
It was a jokey response but now, several weeks later, people from all over the globe are exploring my exhibition, created for charity, which features different photographic series from four photographers, all in Minecraft and all from the safety of isolation!
I’d like to invite you to come visit, too. You don’t even need a copy of the game. First, a bit of background…
The cause: Australia’s devastating 2019/2020 bushfires
The 2019/2020 Australian bushfire season was one of the worst in recent history. The fires burned over an estimated 18.6 million hectares, an area more than 20 times larger than what was destroyed in the 2019 Amazon rainforest fires. That number is incomprehensible by itself, so to put it into perspective, that’s an area larger than France, or Italy, or Germany or New York State…you get the idea: it’s big. The bushfires destroyed over 3,500 homes and killed at least 34 people. It is estimated that a staggering one billion animals died and the cost of dealing with the bushfires is expected to exceed A$4.4 billion (~US2.8bn).
The fires ended in 2020 March but thousands of families remain stranded and homeless. The timing of the COVID19 pandemic couldn’t be crueller, as if it was waiting for the bushfires to clock-off and start the next shift. Most of the attention and donations for the victims has dried out and this has been the main motivation of my project.
‘Still Burning’ is a series of photographs juxtaposing the devastation and regrowth in bushfire affected areas of the NSW south coast region, where I live. This is a beautiful part of Australia, one that is responsible firsthand for inspiring me to start taking photographs when I first moved there. I chose to photograph the series on Kodak AEROCHROME — a colour infrared slide film famous for its pink/red rendering of foliage.
The effect allows me to focus attention on the regrowth of our forests, while symbolising the rebuilding efforts of affected communities. At the same time, the infrared colours eerily mimic flames engulfing the landscape, and reminding us that these communities are still struggling – ‘still burning’ if you will.
For this project, I used my reliable 6×6 medium format system, the Bronica SQ-A. It’s not a very romanticised camera but one that I highly recommend as both great value for money and a feature-rich system. I used the Zenzanon 80mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/3.5 lenses for this series and I shot the AEROCHROME film through an orange filter. It’s suggested to use a yellow, orange or red filter when shooting this film, as it creates a balance between visible light and infrared light.
The different colour filters result in different hues and colour pallets and the choice is purely subjective. I like to use a spot meter while looking through my orange filter and metering slightly on the side of shadows if there aren’t excessively strong highlights in the scene.
I prefer the result even with blown-out highlights, as underexposed AEROCHROME tends to just turn into a magenta monochrome. I will bracket shots that are tricky and have a high dynamic range, infrared light is invisible to the eye and therefore can be unpredictable.
Entering the virtual world: Minecraft as my gallery
Shooting a serious subject matter — one where the victims are still struggling — I found myself uncomfortable with the idea of making a profit off selling prints. I decided that I would donate any money made for from this series to a local community charity — South Coast Donations Logistic Team. This is what sparked the idea to try and present the project to a greater audience, to gather some attention and bring back some awareness to those who lost so much.
With COVID19 restrictions in place, the potential for exhibiting the work in a conventional gallery was out of the question for the foreseeable future. This lead to exploring online options, which had the potential of making the project accessible to a larger number of eyes. Ultimately, I decided to do this through Minecraft as a novel and hopefully interesting experience – and yes, it was incredibly unpractical.
For those of you that don’t know, Minecraft is a video game where you are set in a procedurally generated world full of different materials and resources in which you can use to build anything you want, from single buildings to cities and even working computers — kind of like digital LEGO on steroids.
Creating the exhibition “prints”, 128x128px at a time
I hadn’t played the game for many years, but there is something fundamentally great about the endless possibilities you can use it for. However, displaying images in-game was certainly not something the creators had planned for. Minecraft doesn’t allow you to simply import and display images. That would be too easy. There are, however, ways to beat the system.
In the game, there is a map item that gives you a top-down view of your world in each section (or ‘chunk’) — a 128×128 pixel grid of all the blocks in that section of your world. I started by exploring a third-party program to place blocks of relevant colours into the world so that the image would show up on a map. This was a very slow process and resource-heavy to run if I were to create many high res images to display.
Luckily there’s a much more efficient method; you can replace the map file that Minecraft saves with a modified one and there are tools available to convert image files into Minecraft map files. This was better but I needed photos that were much larger than 128×128 pixels for this to be enjoyable! The “simple” solution then, was to stack many maps together to create as large of an image as I wanted. Here’s a 1024×1024 pixel photo made from 64 (sixty-four) Minecraft maps.
Do you really have to place 64 maps per photograph? No definitely not. I have about 50 images in my gallery and that would take me thousands of precious clicks to create. Thankfully, there are community-developed tools that make building complex things a lot quicker.
Building my art gallery in Minecraft
The first step was to use a tool called MCEdit to find a building that I could download and import into my own Minecraft world. I would then modify it to use as my exhibition space (the building schematic that I found was originally modelled by a user by the name of DhrJelmer). I then used another tool called MapIt that will take images and convert them into the map files I needed and place them automatically where I wanted them.
Now, you have to do this for each photo you want to put into your world but it’s far less tedious than placing 64 maps per photo and all you need to really think about it resizing your images to fit into a multiple of 128. I use white borders to assist with importing images that weren’t an integer ratio when sized for 8 blocks high.
One big issue that presented itself was to stop the game engine from rotating the individual maps each time another player — art gallery patron — tried to interact, or touch the photographs. My solution was one used in real-world art galleries all the time: I put up transparent barriers to stop patrons from getting close enough to touch the artworks but still close enough to appreciate the fine detail if they wanted to.
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Quite obviously, Minecraft galleries will become the new Instagram…
Opening to the public – how to visit
With the gallery built and photographs hung, the last thing I needed to do was let people in. To do this, I needed to set up a Minecraft server that would allow other people with the game to come and visit.
On the smaller, private scale, it’s possible to do this for free on your own computer. For more people, or to make the Minecraft world open to the public, it’s highly recommended to use a dedicated Minecraft server hosting service, as it’s quite risky to allow people to connect directly to your computer if you don’t know what you’re doing.
These public servers usually involve paid subscriptions, similar to the price of hosting a basic website. There are two versions of Minecraft, Java and Bedrock. Java is the original and only works on computers. Bedrock works on consoles, phones and also computers. The short version is that so if you want to allow both versions to play you’ll need two worlds and host two servers.
I set up both but if you can only deal with setting it up one version, I recommend Java as it’s the more popular version.
If you don’t have a copy of Minecraft, don’t worry I have you covered with a tour below. If you do own the game, you can connect to the server with these details depending on which version you’re running:
Server Address: still_burning.apexmc.co
Server Address: 126.96.36.199
If you don’t own the game, I’ve recorded a tour of the whole gallery, which you can watch here:
About ‘Still Burning’ – a virtual exhibition
While I was photographing this project, I discovered another photographer by the name of Robert Walwyn who was also shooting the regrowth in NSW on Kodak AEROCHROME. I saw one of his photographs shared online, he had beaten me to it and so we started talking about respective projects. As a local to the south coast area, I gave Robert tips on where I found great examples of regrowth as he continued his project.
As my project evolved into a virtual gallery, I asked Robert if he would like to participate and I was fortunate enough for him to be keen about the idea. Robert photographed his pieces with a Pentax 67ii and a Hasselblad Xpan.
My images are part of an ongoing series called ‘Karrikins’, documenting the regrowth of plants following the recent Australian bushfires.
This set of images are special to me because they represent the first time in my photographic life that I have planned a project, previsualised how the images might look, and been happy with the execution.– ROBERT WALWYN
Aerochrome captures the infrared light reflecting off the regrowth in lurid shades of pink and red, which contrasts against the burnt and blackened trees, evoking images of the flickering flames that crept up these trees only months prior.– ROBERT WALWYN
I’m also incredibly proud that my exhibition includes work by Kristelle De Freitas (my sister, who sparked the idea) and Luke Allfree. Kristelle’s submissions were photographed in the Blue Mountains region of NSW on Kodak Portra 400 and digitally translated to black and white – she’s a champion of alternative processes and teaches design in NSW.
She has also created a zine of community photographs of the smoke that engulfed Sydney during our last summer to raise money and bring awareness to the climate change issue that increased the severity of the bushfires.
Blackened Heath can be thought of as a series of portraits — of those who most closely witnessed the Summer fires of 2019/20. I shoot trees casually and frequently, as I walk, and with whatever film I have on hand. It’s a moment to stop and pay attention, to capture and document part of their crucial physicality, to hold onto it with light and matter.– KRISTELLE DE FREITAS
To me, the trees that stood tall amongst the stubble-like regrowth of the devastated Blackheath region, hold a steadfast character. They remain. And they want you to know that.– KRISTELLE DE FREITAS
Luke Allfree has been photographing the Australian landscape and bushfires on AEROCHROME and black and white over the last three years; he is a volunteer firefighter who has served in several states of Australia. His submissions beautifully merge the infrared imagery of this gallery together with the black and white photographs of the bushfires photographed by Kristelle.
Bushfires have a strong connection to Australia’s history. For as long as I can remember hearing about the horror stories of these fires and the damage done to the communities that endured them.
In 2018 I began photographing the Australian landscapes that had been changed by fire through AEROCHROME, capturing the infrared reflected from the chlorophyll in fresh growth after these fires, alongside some longer projects of Tasmanian Landscapes.– LUKE ALLFREE
I also began photographing the fires themselves, as a volunteer firefighter, and documented the different firefighting campaigns over the years both in Tasmania and interstate on deployment. Over the years and throughout several states in Australia, I present a few of these photos.– LUKE ALLFREE
All the photographers involved have decided to donate any sales made from prints or zines to relevant bushfire related charities of their choosing. Please consider supporting the effort by purchasing prints. Prints from my Still Burning exhibit can be purchased directly from my website. For prints from the guest exhibitors please contact Robert Walwyn, Kristelle De Freitas and Luke Allfree.
This was the first time I’ve ever run an event like this and like Robert this has been my first series of photographs I’ve put together as something I wanted to say. I’ve found that as I gain a technical confidence with film my desire to make my photos more meaningful grows and the need to tell a story is becoming a greater focus.
Seeing people treat this experience as a real gallery and slowly peruse my images alongside a bunch of talented photographers work has been very satisfying, to say the least. It’s funny that it takes a virtual world to make my own work feel real.
The exhibition will remain open 24/7 until the 30th of May but I hope it won’t be my last, virtual or otherwise.
Ps. I also recorded some Super 8 footage of bushfire affected communities along the NSW south coast region of Australia as part of this project. It was shot on Kodak EKTACHROME E100 (self-developed and scanned) using a Kowa 16-H Anamorphic adaptor on a Nizo 148. If you’d like to donate to local bushfire relief and rebuilding efforts, please check out the fundraiser I currently have running on my website.
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