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Down the AI rabbit hole
Some people hate it, but I can't stop looking
“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”
Paul Valéry, Pièces sur L’Art, 1931
That sounds familiar.
The Valéry quote opens Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," written in 1936, nearly a century ago. Long story short, Benjamin explores the impact of mass reproduction technologies, like photography and film, on traditional art forms. That seems relevant in the context of our current moment with AI-generated images, which, at first glance, appear to threaten photography, documentary journalism, and maybe even democracy. This line, in particular, struck a chord with me:
We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.
I’ve been swimming in AI imagery for the past few days. In a previous post, I wrote about Boris Eldagsen, and I’ve been obsessed with learning more about how photographers — or at least photographically-minded artists — use this new technology to make pictures. Are they art? Surely, some of them will be. I can feel myself getting sucked into a vortex of AI imagery. Pictures that aren't photography but look like photography. Images that are compelling and attractive, like paintings and movies. Pictures that may anger some photographers when I show them. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of hand-wringing about AI. That makes sense, but I’m trying to keep an open mind. It’s all too interesting to ignore, and I want to understand it better.
I did this with NFTs last year — explored with curiosity and tried to understand things by thinking in public with an open mind. People unfollowed me then, and they're unfollowing me now for simply entertaining these topics on social media. We need thoughtful public discussions about AI art — a series of good-faith conversations with boosters, critics, and practitioners about the perils and possibilities of this new way of making images. How else will we learn where this new medium is going? I respect that some folks want to avoid it entirely. But I admire those who are dabbling and exploring th creative possibilities. It's notable that so many photographers are tinkering with AI imagemaking. Why do you think that is?
I wrote about “post-photography” in a previous newsletter. Actually, I asked ChatGPT about post-photography since I’m still learning about it. Here’s how it replied:
Post-photography is a term used to describe a broad range of artistic practices that challenge and expand the traditional definition of photography. It refers to the use of photography in combination with other media, such as digital technology, video, performance, sculpture, and installation, to create new forms of visual expression.
The benefit of asking questions in public is that you learn something new every day. I have much to learn about this scene and the people making it. Someone pointed me to Fellowship’s Post Photographic Perspectives, which is a treasure trove of weird, wonderful images generated by artists using artificial intelligence technologies.
Fellowship bills the show like so:
The Post Photographic Perspectives collection comprises 1,500 unique AI-generated artworks by some of the leading voices of the post-photography movement. Curator and artist Roope Rainisto, in coordination with Fellowship, has created a collection that signals the intersection between AI and Photography.
I appreciate that description — “the intersection between AI and Photography.” Words matter, and how we define this stuff is critical. I’m still struggling with it myself. Folks are scrambling to find new terms for generative art that resembles photography — promptography, synthography, and other words that don't feel quite right. I don't see why -ography should be part of the terminology. Isn't it all just CGI? Computer-generated imagery? We've acclimated to that in cinema. How are AI images different from special effects?
I know that many of my readers are photographers. Do you make AI images? I’m keen to see more of these kinds of pictures partly because I’m so late to the game, and I want to know what’s happening but also because I’m eager to see who’s doing creative work in this mode. It’s not photography — It’s something else entirely. But in the hands of photographers — those among us with a finely tuned visual acuity — I’m convinced there are enormous possibilities. Please drop me a line if you are experimenting with this stuff. I’m eager to see more of it.
One more thing…
I know many of you have seen enough AI chatter from me this week and want me to return to traditional photography. I get it! I’ll leave you with this palette cleanser: Rebecca Bengal profiled the great portrait photographer Judith Joy Ross in an elegant essay for Aperture Magazine in 2021. It’s a good read and a salient reminder of why the practice of photography is essential to many of us.
Ross's work is decidedly un-AI since it’s entirely rooted in her observations and real-world experiences. So many criticisms I’ve read about AI images are their lack of connection to the “real world.” Part of what we love about photography is how it connects us to a personal experience of reality — something or someone we observe in our waking life. I feel that, and I’m sure you do too. I like this exchange from Rebecca’s essay:
“I photographed people from the get-go. Even though I didn’t know how to have them in my life. That’s probably why I’m good at it,” Ross says. “Something happens, I see them intensely, and we never see each other again. I know it’s just a photograph. I know I’m being delusional. But I like to think I’m capturing the real thing.”
“But if you didn’t think that it was the real thing in the moment, could you even make the picture?” I ask. Ross shakes her head emphatically, no.
You can see more of Judith Joy Ross’s work on the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s website. And keep your eyes peeled for Rebecca’s new book, Strange Hours: Photography, Memory, and the Lives of Artists, which drops in May. I can’t wait to read it.
Okay, that’s all for now. As always, let me know what you think in the comments. I love hearing from you. Have a great weekend!