Process and Product in Photography and AI-Generated Image Making

In another century — seemingly in another lifetime — I wrote an essay for a high school sophomore writing course. Back then, I read primarily science fiction and this was the era when there was a lot of good, thoughtful, and thought-provoking sci-fi being created. Much of it was preoccupied with man and machine, and the relationship thereof. Think Isaac Asimov’s I Robot series or Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (later re-envisioned for the screen as Blade Runner), and Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, to name just three example. On television and in the movies, robots and computers were already common motifs by the late ’60’s, whether central or tangential to the plot. Think Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Lost in Space and of course, again 2001: A Space Odyssey. I remember nothing much about my essay except that it received an A- from a teacher that I had a mild schoolboy crush on and that it was titled 2001: A Computer Audacity. Content-wise, I am pretty sure it was stuffed with a fair amount of precocious if not pretentious 10th-grade thoughts about the looming interface of man and machine. The “audacity” referenced is of course the sheer audacity, or so I thought, of HAL 9000 hijacking the mission of Discovery 1. Of course, from HAL’s perspective he wasn’t hijacking the mission: he was fulfilling the mission as he best saw fit.

I’ve been thinking a lot about HAL lately and that brings me to the point of this one-sided conversation on process and product. HAL was focused on the product, the mission. He didn’t care how he got there — or who got in his way — the product was the mission, the end goal. It’s in this way that I think of the challenge and conundrum of AI-generated images. They are first and foremost focused on the end result, the product. In contrast, photography is as much about the process as the product. The journey you the creator took to arrive at the photograph you have created, is at least as important as the photograph itself. In many cases, for me certainly, the journey is often orders of magnitude more important than the final image.

Think of it this way: each photograph has some story behind it, no matter how short.  Perhaps the stories are poignant, perhaps banal, but they are always personal. This is different than a photograph “telling a story.” Not all photographs have to “tell a story.” Some may simply strive to express a concept, like beauty for instance. Or maybe they were designed to provoke an emotion, like some abstract photographs do. But to create that image, there is the process, a journey undertaken by the creator. This could involve going into the field, getting on a plane, hiking miles, visiting remote villages, or simply retiring to one’s studio. That’s the physical part but equally important the creator needs to be mentally present to photograph what she/he visualizes. The process – the journey – doesn’t end there. With images in-hand (more likely, on memory card or disk) those raw images that were captured are crafted via post-processing to become your realization. Each of the eight photographs featured here have a story around their creation. The stories may not matter to every viewer of the images, but they certainly matter to me. (Anecdotally, many have commented to me that images’ stories do matter to them and thereby make the viewing of said images, all the richer.) Without the exploration, the journey, the process, there can be no discovery. The photograph is not the discovery, per se, but a visual expression and representation of that moment in the journey. A partial summation of your entire process. To turn a phrase on its head, a story is in a thousand (really, millions of) pixels.

The process, so to speak, for creating the like-themed AI-generated images shown here involved nothing more than entering in a series of text prompts. The journey, so to speak, was then performed by the AI, the computer, with its procedures and protocols and algorithms going out to the ether and grabbing bits and bobs of images and data to mash and meld together its interpretation of my text strings. Have I as a creator learned or discovered anything from that “experience?” Other than the manufactured product, a fabricated image, what have I gained?

But this brings up another point. We are all consumers and as potential customers of some company’s product, do we care whether it’s a real photograph or an AI-generated image that is prompting, encouraging us to buy? I would wager that those involved in selling products generally don’t care and if they can save some money using AI-generated images over real commercial photographs, they will. Because, in the instance of being marketed to, it is about the product, not the process. We don’t care about the commercial photographer’s ‘experience’ shooting that bowl of corn flakes, do we?

So, why would a photographer dabble in AI-generated image creation? There is the novelty, the curiosity to see if the machine can create something similar to what your process created. As well, some might say that it is fun playing with the AI-generators, though for me, I didn’t derive a lot of joy in creating the generally inferior faux photographs featured here. As machines become better at emulating photographs, it will become close to, if not impossible to discern the real from fake. Actually, we’ve already crossed that line: AI-generated images have already reportedly been used in recent political campaigns. Another example: a well-respected bird photographer has been playing around with creating AI-generated bird images and posting them on his Instagram account. He clearly labels them as AI-generated and not a photograph but people see what they want to see and interpret accordingly, even if incorrectly.

There is one arena where I think AI-generated art can be a bit of fun: in the creation of the fantastical, the mythical, the fanciful, the historical, the a-historical, the science-fictional. But then, I never could draw and I am sure that professional illustrators would love to school me about their journey in creating their images!

To be continued…I’m sure.