Meet the Instagram phenom making art with a Game Boy Camera from 1998

Jean-Jacques Calbayrac bought his first Game Boy Camera at a flea market around a decade ago, “just for the fun of it,” he said. “You take like four or five pictures and you’re like, OK, yeah, I’m done with that.”

Now he has around a half dozen of the retro gaming peripherals, and he carries all of them when he’s working, walking around London snapping shots with one of the most primitive digital cameras ever made.

On his Instagram channel, gameboycameraman, Calbayrac posts photos taken exclusively with the Game Boy Camera, which launched in 1998. The press release Instagram sent us about the project put it succinctly: “In the age of 12 million pixels, Jean-Jacques Calbayrac requires 128.” That’s the staggeringly low resolution of the GBC’s images.

Calbayrac started the channel as a means of blending his two loves, photography and video games, into a single project. “The Game Boy was my first [game console] — the first, fat Game Boy,” Calbayrac, now 29, said. “The Game Boy has something special, and I love every handheld game console from Nintendo, like Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Game Boy Advance SP, the Game Boy Micro, the DS, the 3DS — I love them, they’re all awesome.”

Calbayrac is from Monaco and studied art and photography in Paris at the Gobelins School of the Image. He started practicing photography almost a decade ago using digital cameras like the Canon Rebel series, which is basically the polar opposite of the Game Boy Camera.

“There are only [four] shades of colors: black, dark grey, light grey, and white, and there is nothing else,” Calbayrac said. “It’s shit, but in the meantime it’s so simple that it forces you to find a way to take beautiful pictures.” In other words, you have to work harder to get great photos — and you have to really know what you’re doing.

While a normal digital camera’s SD card can hold thousands on thousands of photos, each Game Boy Camera is limited to 30 shots. That’s why Calbayrac carries so many with him. “Basically when I’m out I use them like I would use film for another camera,” he said.

Back in the day, the only way to get images off the Game Boy was to print IRL photos with Nintendo’s Game Boy Printer. To get his photos online, Calbayrac uses a special custom device that emulates the printer but instead sends the images to a memory card that can transfer them to his computer. He declined to share where he got the device, determined to make sure his trade secrets stay secrets. “It was quite hard to find them. I don’t want to make the game easier for anyone else,” he said apologetically. “I know it’s mean.”

Thankfully acquiring the Game Boy Cameras themselves hasn’t been difficult — only slightly traumatizing. “I bought like four of them on eBay and every time I got pictures on them it was not something that I wanted to see. It was not family pictures and things like that,” he said, laughing. “Like everything you can picture — dicks, boobs, these kinds of things. And people send that through eBay, and you’re like what the f*ck guys!”

“I continue because I think there is something pure with this camera.”

“Basically every time I buy a new one, every time I’m like ‘OK, what am I going to find on this one?’” he continued. “It’s like a Kinder Surprise, you’re happy about what you have but you don’t know what’s inside.”

Calbayrac mostly takes photos around London, his current home. “I want to find a path where I will have a bit of everything, like a busy street, some buildings,” he said. Scroll down his Instagram feed and you’ll see photos of concerts, nature and people as well. You’ll also see several color shots of No Man’s Sky, Hello Games’ space exploration game.

He snapped the shots by pointing the Game Boy Camera at images of the game projected onto a white wall. Colorizing them isn’t so simple: every color shot requires four different images, each with a different color filter, that Calbayrac then combines using photo software. “It’s basically how color photography works, but I do it by hand instead of letting the camera do it for me,” he said.

There’s one video that’s partially in color as well — it starts with a spaceship taking off in No Man’s Sky and transitions to a street in London. “It was a hell of a mess to do, but it was fun,” Calbayrac said. “For every [frame] of the video, so 96 pictures, for every picture you have to do four pictures, and every time you have to use the filters … it can get very messy if you don’t pay attention.” He hasn’t yet mastered colorizing photos taken outdoors, so half the video is black-and-white, but it’s a cool effect nevertheless.

“It was a challenge to me to try to use this camera, because it’s a very primitive camera and it’s very hard to use,” Calbayrac said. “After a few weeks I was literally in love with the style of it … I don’t know if [Nintendo] thought about it like that when they made it, but it’s absolutely unique.”

He’s been doing this consistently for over five months now, and he plans to stick with it. Most of his photos are in London, but he plans to take Game Boy Camera tours through Paris, India and elsewhere — hopefully in color, he said.

“There are some other nerds like me who are interested in the Game Boy Camera, it’s just that they did it and they stopped,” he said. “I continue because I think there is something pure with this camera.”

You can follow Calbayrac on Instagram.

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