NEITHER HEAVEN NOR HORROR
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DEPENDING ON WHO YOU ASK, ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is either a miraculous boon or an existential threat to mankind, seen by some camps as an opportunity to evolve in untold ways and by others as the fast track to enslavement. As pertains to the arts, a quick scan of current press clippings yields mega-scads of hair-on-fire warnings that all creative pursuits, photography among them, will soon be usurped by Our Machine Overlords. Why, the reasoning goes, should anyone put up with fussy and imperfect human artists when the Frankenstein Brains can be just as creative?
This image, in particular, has recently scared the Bellowing Bejesus out of photogs the world over. As of this writing (April 2023, for you archive hounds), its creator, Boris Eldagsen, has just won the Sony World Photography Awards competition with it. He has also thrown a rock into the pond of public discussion by refusing said prize, explaining that he cannot accept it since the picture was generated by A.I. instead of a camera. Suddenly “someday” has been shoved right into our “present-day” faces, given the image’s compelling realism as well as its nostalgic evocation of an earlier “photographic” processes. If anything can convincingly suggest the look of a photograph, Eldagsen’s entry certainly does. To make it, he typed a series of cues and conditions into a program which produced the results in mere minutes in what Boris refers to as a “promptograph”. “You start from your imagination, and you describe what you would like to have”, he said of the process in a recent interview with NPR, “and you can make such a text prompt quite complicated.” Like many people viewing the results, Eldagsen is both delighted and terrified by the results:
As an artist, I love AI. (But) as a citizen of a democratic country, I’m shocked about the possibilities of disinformation it gives. Anyone that can just type a couple of words can create a photorealistic image of the Pope in Balenciaga. You can’t trust an image anymore. We need some kind of labeling – some kind of fact-checking where you see that an image has gone through certain instances – has been getting proof by photo editors. Only then we can know it’s an authentic picture – shows something that has happened.
What’s been missing from all the panicky reaction seems to be the plain fact that photography has always, always lived at the juncture of pure light recording, technological manipulation, and the artist’s vision. Photographs are a group effort, never devoid of whatever tweaking and “post” is out there at the moment or the raw act of freezing time but always in the service of an artist who decides what the mix should eventually be. Every change in recording medium, technical gear, enhancement or format has been initially met with, at best, disdain, and, at worst, outright outrage. But just as photography never supplanted painting, A.I. imaging merely needs to be labeled and marketed for what it is, neither heaven nor horror, but merely another way to tell a story. If you love the mechanics and science of a camera-rendered image, stay in that lane. If you want to see what else is out there, trust the story you’re telling more than the language you choose to tell it. Given the advance of photography over its first two centuries, “Promptographs” have no clear advantage over conventional picture making; both require a thinking mind as their initial spark.
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