Ekphrasis: PJ Trenton

Whether one likes or dislikes something is pretty much irrelevant… the importance is in the seeing. – PJ Trenton

PJ Trenton by Rowan Derryth

I’ve heard PJ Trenton referred to as ‘the National Geographic photographer of SL’ (and although perhaps less dangerous here, I have heard tales of him being hit by planes, and  ‘bombed’, while on location). Anyone who had seen his stunning images in Prim Perfect Magazine, the Primgraph, or on Designing Worlds, can easily see how he gets this reputation.

The Mosque at Al Andalus by PJ Trenton

Not to mention that he is the artist who brings the popular comic ‘The Quest for the Golden Prim’ to life.  But if you think his talent surfaces in merely the representative, then think again.

In fact, ‘surfaces’ is just the word I would use to describe the works in his new show ‘The Luminous Lens’ that just opened at the Tricia Aferdita Gallery in Avalon.  These abstract photographs are large surfaces of luminosity which seem to have more in common with paintings than traditional photographs.  Trenton explores some of the most vivid locations in SL, then manages to transform them, through his lens, into studies in light, colour, and texture that puts the Impressionists to shame.

Abstract 1 (Sentient Sketch), SL photo, 2010

An avid photographer in RL, Trenton began playing with the SL camera not long after joining over three years ago. Like many others, he got his start rezzing his RL works, but soon wanted to explore what could be done in SL.  “The first exhibit I ever did I called ‘Urban Squall‘.  These were all black and white images shot in a handful of grungy urban environments.”  He smiles, reminiscing, “I decorated the gallery to match the exhibit, with a run down taxi, for example.”  He seems amused by his early experiment, but I can’t help but note that even in his early days, he was carefully considering the ways in which he could document the visual narrative of the spaces he explored.

An early work from Trenton's 'Urban Squall' series.

Trenton has also been a gallery owner and graphic designer since his early days, and currently owns Exposure Gallery (managed by the arts community force of nature herself, Tricia Aferdita) and Render Design in Avalon.  But these days Trenton is kept unbelievably busy by his work for the aforementioned Prim Perfect Publications.  To get an idea of what the whirlwind life of an in-demand photographer was like, as well as what inspires him, he took me on a tour of some of his favourite places.

“Shooting for the magazines helped me understand what one could do here artistically, but more importantly I realized that what I really am here is a historian,” he muses as we survey the dystopian landscape of INSILICO, a perfect place to ponder the ephemeral transience of Second Life.  “I’m documenting, and in some cases preserving the memory of places which no longer exist.  Because I shoot for the magazines, I take a LOT of photos.  I like the idea that these places are somehow archived.”

One of the denizens of INSILICO as captured by Trenton. I recommend seeing the whole series here.

While wandering the stunning community of Winterfell I asked him whether he felt that SL has affected his RL work.  He explained that because he is a photographer, he saw himself using the SL camera in the same way he might use his RL one.  However, this was not without its difficulties.  “You have to understand the limitations here and  find a way to push it and make it work for you.  I think the images in this show really achieve that… and you can actually create images that are much more like a painting than a photo… I think that is the really neat thing about this show, that I have to explain to people that these are photographs, not paintings.”

We finally visited the incredible AM Radio sims, including The Far Away, and I wondered, as I itched to take out my own camera and start shooting in the golden light, what of his various subjects he liked to shoot the most.  “Impromptu shots of people… to be out with my friends and take their picture and give it to them as total surprise…. I think that is where the greatest reward is.  People don’t expect it, and I love the reactions.”  He smiled and slipped me a photograph.

The author gazes at the artist at work, unaware that she is the subject of his own photographic gaze. By PJ Trenton.

As I gazed appreciatively at the unexpected gift, he continued, “I think what it boils down to is that everything I shoot, I shoot for my friends, whether it is to accompany assignments written for the magazines, or to hang as an exhibition in a friend’s gallery.  I’m not sure it really matters what the subject is, but that the end result is something I’m proud to share.  I mean, people put their faith in me, so I think it is very important to deliver on that.  I suppose that is why I struggle with the idea that I am an ‘artist’ here, and not just a designer/photojournalist. I don’t see it as my career, it isn’t all I do, unlike so many of my friends who are full-time working artists.”

Looking at the image in my hand, and having seen his work for this new exhibition, I was extremely amused to hear how he struggled with the notion that he was an ‘artist’.  Trenton has a natural eye for composition and tonality that I would happily put on par with a host of expert photographers, from Ansel Adams to Annie Liebovitz to Minor White.  These new abstract works show his mastery with his lens, that he can arrange the mundane into fields of colour and light that capture the beauty and strangeness of our virtual world.

Being something of a shutterbug myself, we ended up spending more time in photographic contemplation during our travels  than in discussion. So we decided to retire for a rather delectable coffee in the Café des Artistes in Paris 1900, where our meandering chat on his work, art in general, and criticism, had us considering an interesting experiment.

Only one thing had been bothering me since I saw the preview of Trenton’s show – the fact that he had given them the non-descriptive titles of Abstract 1, Abstract 2, etc. I asked him about this decision, to which he casually commented, “Titles of artworks are kind of neither here nor there.”  While the off-handedness made me smile, it also raised my art historical hackles, as my brain ran through a million challenges to his statement.  The conversation continued:

PJ: I have told you that I often stand before a work and think…why did they name it that?  I was actually at an exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada not long ago where every work in the show… all by the same artist… were all called ‘Untitled’.
RD: Yes, it is common… what did you think of that?
PJ: Personally, I liked it…  It made me wonder if deep down these artists wished to avoid putting preconceived notions on the viewer by suggesting to them a title…clear or not. Here is my work… what do you think… or want it to be? Unless a work is very specific, like Haystacks; Sunflowers; Girl with a Pearl Earring; or the works of Canaletto. The conundrum for me comes from abstract works, like Pollock.  Personally I find naming works VERY difficult.
RD: You are not the first artist by any means to struggle with this.  In fact, I’ve known artists, both personally and historically, who prefer either to not name their works (hello, ‘Untitled’), or who want others to name them.  Because, in a way, you are right, the title doesn’t matter. The SURFACE matters, what people see and take for themselves.  BUT, many people don’t really look..  I mean, they look, they think ‘What is that?’  Then they look at the title and expect it to tell them what they are supposed to see.  It is a signifier to the signified, to get all semantic on your ass.  So… there is power in the name, I think.
PJ: Isn’t that sort of what ekphrasis means?
RD: (smiling ironically) Yes, I suppose the column title does come from my desire to discuss, describe and understand works.  And literally, it means to proclaim or call an inanimate object by a name.  To me, it makes analyzing a work more interesting.

He considered my words, then looked at me keenly, wondering aloud how I might title his new photographs. He was curious to see what I would name them, and how that might help him to consider his work in a broader context. And I admit I was thrilled to have the chance to spend some time thinking about these gorgeous works, so I accepted his challenge.  After all, it isn’t every day that an artist actually gives a crap about an art critic’s opinion!

So I ventured to Tricia Aferdita’s Avalon Gallery, and began looking, and considering.  What did these works say to me, what did I see?  What did they reference?  I made my list, with more than a little anxiety.  Then, rather than handing it over, we tested the experiment: could he, with just the title, figure out which work I was naming?  It was a fun game, and he had about a 75% success rate.  But ultimately, he liked what I came up with, and so I’ve been honoured to be able to give my own subtitles to his work.  Here are a few samples of what I came up with, and why…

I titled the poster piece, Abstract 1, ‘Sentient Sketch’ (see above), simply because of the sketchy quality of the vigorous line, and because it has a very strong vitality to it, as if it were alive.  Also, I love alliteration, as may become clear.

Abstract 12 (ChloroForms)
Abstract 12 (ChloroForms)

However ChloroForms was the first title I came up with, and the only one I told PJ about, as we were hatching this scheme.  I think he was a bit non-plussed, and said “You mean it will make people pass out?”  Then I explained the capitol ‘F’, and that I thought of it because the green was like chlorophyll, but they were forms.  “Clever,” was his response, which gave me hope.

Two others came to me very easily, and I think need no further explanation than that which my titles offer, other than in the case of the first, I’m a bit of a Victorian, and in the latter, I liked that the image referenced the medium:

Abstract 10 (Absinthe Haze)
Abtract 11 (Aperture)

I’ll mention one more here because I found the exchange intriguing when PJ and I played our title game.  Apres Auvers was the first I gave him to guess, and he answered correctly almost right off.  I asked him how he knew, and he replied “Well, it seems a very specific title, exacting, and I think that image is very specific as well.”  So he saw it as appropriate for a completely different reason than I chose it, which I very much liked.

Abstract 13 (Apres Auvers)

My reason?  The work for me so clearly reminded me of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, painted at Auvers.

For punctual readers, The Luminous Lens opens at 7pm SLT tonight, just after the time of posting this, and runs through April.  And all this Ekphrasis fun of mine aside, I have to agree with Trenton: the importance is in the seeing.  And you must see these works, for they are nothing short of stunning.

UPDATE: The little experiment of PJ letting me title his works transformed into a full-blown exhibition catalogue, which was launched as a book in SL and is available as a PDF on Calameo.  Take a look, and if you’d like a copy of the book, you can IM either one of us in world.


  1. A wonderful post, Rowan. And I feel as if I’ve now been introduced to another facet of the multilayered PJ through your work and conversations with him – I’m not a photographer so these conversations don’t come naturally to me, but oh oh oh it’s wonderful to read of your interactions, and to get to know the BOTH of you better.

    You say: “Impromptu shots of people… to be out with my friends and take their picture and give it to them as total surprise…. I think that is where the greatest reward is. People don’t expect it, and I love the reactions.” — I agree. I still recall my breath catching in my throat the first time PJ handed me a pic of myself, and that thrill never diminishes over time. I have a special folder just for these gifts. My life is enriched by PJ’s talent and friendship. Thank you for a stellar job of catching this tiger by the tail!

    1. Thank you so much, Ceejay! I completely know what you mean, and I too have a ‘PJ’ folder that is full of wondrous things!

      I’ll add, too, that the one image I really wanted to include here, but decided against for space and perhaps for content, was the photo he made of you for the ‘Shirtless Against Breast Cancer’ calendar and book. I’ve often said I think that picture is a STUNNING portrait of you, and one of my favourites of his! Readers – go take a look! You can find our more about this project at PJ’s blog: http://virtuallypj.blogspot.com/2010/01/shirtless-against-breast-cancer.html

  2. Thanks so much Rowan for the wonderful interview and posting. Thank you also for the opportunity to express and share what I often think about but don’t get to articulate very often.

    I am truly blessed to be surrounded by some of the most fascinating, creative and exceptional people. They are all why I log in every day and I am truly thankful for how each of them enhance my life.

    And thank you Ceejay…you are one of my greatest friends for which I am extremely glad to be able to say.


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