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 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.