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Scenes From a Memory

An artist uses the video game aesthetic to create new perspectives on some indelible pictures from the last half-century. The viewer is no longer just a spectator, he says.

April 19, 2001|MARC SALTZMAN | gameguyis@home

At first glance, the images look like just another set of screen shots from video games such as "The Sims" or "Baldur's Gate." The worlds they reveal are viewed from the top down, full of unnatural color and sharp angles.

But artist Jon Haddock chose the video game aesthetic to render some of the most indelible scenes of the last half-century: the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon, a student protester standing down a line of Chinese tanks.

"In these photographs, we are just spectators," said Haddock, 40. "But re-creating these images in this perspective from above puts us in a 'God mode' so we're not just looking in but almost participating in it, adding an extra emotional layer."

Haddock's work is on rotating display at galleries and museums nationwide--including a current exhibition on digital art at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The artist, who lives in Tempe, Ariz., said all 20 images in his "Screenshots" collection were inspired by scenes that stuck in his mind long after he saw them for the first time.

"Many of my images, as you'll notice, are from the 1960s and early '70s, a time I began to notice our violent culture," Haddock said. Indeed, violence permeates his work. But that's not why he chose video game sensibilities for his pieces. Haddock said games provide a visual language instantly understandable to younger audiences.

In keeping with the aesthetic of games, Haddock drew his images in Adobe Photoshop at a resolution of 800 by 600 pixels, 72 dots per inch--the same default specifications for most video games.

Many of Haddock's images are not direct reproductions of the photos that inspired them. For instance, Haddock's rendering of a naked Vietnamese girl caught in a napalm attack changes the perspective so the fleeing girl is not the center if the image.

"In the case of Kim Phuc burned by napalm, it felt wrong to make her the center of the image again, when it wasn't necessary," Haddock said. "The image is about our relationship with the event, not the photo itself."

Billy Howard, founder and director of the commercial art gallery Howard House in Seattle, said that even though a mouse rather than a paintbrush was used, Haddock's work stands up to criticism.

"Remember, there were critics, naysayers, that said photography and video were not art," Howard said. "But over time we know that it is; it has been accepted now. There are museums coast to coast that now welcome this new age in digital media.

"Jon's images are a reflection of our culture."

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Marc Saltzman is a freelance writer.

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