About that AI Photography award controversy and a Minor Update on AI Imagery in General

A couple of weeks ago, there was a flurry of news (for example, the Guardian) on how Boris Eldagsen refused the World Photography Organization’s Sony World Photography Award in the Creative Open category that he won for his AI image “The Electrician.” As the Guardian piece notes, Eldagsen’s intent was to question whether the competition would accept AI Art blithely and, prior to being announced as a winner, he made it clear (as his site does) to the competition organizers that the work was AI-generated.

Let’s look at the photograph for a minute. I suppose I shouldn’t reproduce it here without permission (I’ve asked and will add it if I get a positive response). You can view it on the artist’s site which gives an idea of his work in context.

Eldagsen’s description of the series this belongs to, Pseudomnesia, interests me. The term is Greek for pseudo-memory or fake memory, and of course AI imagery is ideal for creating fake memories. In that sense, his work is not unlike my Critical AI Art project, although I would like to know more about the intent behind the specific imagery. The artist explains, “Just as photography replaced painting in the reproduction of reality, AI will replace photography. Don’t be afraid of the future. It will just be more obvious that our mind always created the world that makes it suffer.” Eldagsen is an enthusiast of AI image generation (what he dubs “promptography”) and he argues that it should have a separate category in competitions such as this one.

Questions arise immediately. Were the judges aware it was an AI-generated photograph? If not, why were they judges in a photography competition? The hands are clearly off, with fingernails only appropriate for Joan Crawford, Disney villainesses, and strippers. There is an over-smoothed aspect to parts of the image and then other parts are grainy, giving the image an uncanny-valley feel. The surface damage is strange: one of the scratches appears to be a reflection in framing glass. From a narrative point of view, it doesn’t make much sense. It looks like the woman on the right is getting her clothes adjusted, but why is the other woman cowering behind her? Whose hand is the top right one? Is this last-minute preparations for a wedding or an execution (the image is intended to be in “the visual language of the 1940s”)? Why is it called “the Electrician”? I suppose those enigmas are part of the attraction to the image.

As far as the competition goes, I’ve never heard of it before. The work that they award (reflective of is submitted?) tends to rather boring, the sort of thing found in photography magazines that have lots of product reviews and are read by people who have never heard of New Topographics, but operate websites selling giclée prints. At least there wasn’t much HDR, itself a scourge on the arts. I wonder if the judges were aware that the photograph was generated by Dall-E when they deliberated these works? Possibly not. If they were aware, I’d think they would say so, but in this interview, Eldagsen states “I thanked them later for choosing an AI-generated image and they were all quiet because they did not really want to talk about it.” Again, most of the premiated work isn’t fine art photography, at least nothing I would be interested in, but rather merely technically proficient. What were the criteria for selection? All unclear. Eldagsen neither mentions that he fooled the judges nor that the discovery of this work as AI led to his refusal of the prize, so it’s hard to tell. Nevertheless, his own goal appears to emulate Marcel Duchamp’s submission of a urinal he titled “Fountain” to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists Exhibition and his subsequent resignation from the Society after they refused to acknowledge the urinal as art. Instead of outrage, however, the interview points out the competition’s comic ineptness at communication and publicity management, something which Eldagsen is clearly better at.

Regarding AI image generation, Eldagsen is correct. There is no stuffing the genie back in the bottle. AI image generators and filters are here and already defining photography and art in general. But when we think about the vast amount of imagery produced by smart phones—much more than with digital cameras—we already do produce most of our imagery via AI, as this blog post from Apple shows. Although the iPhone’s photographic ability is seductive, it is also very much the product of built-in machine learning algorithms and, in trying to achieve an ideal image, permanently sacrifices accuracy for image quality, something Kyle Chayka points out in this article at the New Yorker. The result, for many, is indeed self-inflicted suffering: filters and machine learning algorithms are leading people to experience body dysmorphia and then drawn, in the manner of the Kardashians, to seek needless, disfiguring surgery or suicide (see Elle Hunt’s piece in the Guardian).

Such ruminations quickly get us into the territory of philosophy and cognitive science. Our brains already apply processing to vision, for example in masking the “mini-blackouts” from blinking and apply something akin to a physics-based video stabilization to smooth out movement.

Thinking about AI image processors, I am floored by how fast they have developed during the last year. Eldagsen made his image “in 2022 with early Dall-E,” which is vastly inferior to what can be done with Midjourney 5 these days. Take three examples from summer 2022, when I was exploring a series about a fictional visit to Lithuania by photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard. All are produced with Dall-E.

While they recall the Lithuanian countyside and Meatyard’s approach, they break down in many places, glitching in ways I quite like. The second image and third images are poorly framed. The landscape in the third image becomes too geometric. The rightmost figure in the third image is microcephalic and perhaps leperous. And so on.

Here are some new examples. I didn’t spend long on them. These are hardly finished in my book. It wouldn’t be hard to take them into Photoshop and get them to match Meatyard’s work better. I may yet do that, as I am pondering a piece on an alternate history of Lithuanian art between 1965 and 1980.

The situation with painting is even more dramatic. Take my Doggerland project.

Much as I love this primitistic image of Cnut VI’s lament made with Dall-E in August of 2022, compare it to either of the images I made last night with Midjourney. Again, I haven’t spent any time with Photoshop or inpainting.

Inpainting would take care of that child crushed under Cnut’s coracle-throne and it could be good to muck up the water and clean up the sky a bit.

Well, ok, so in this painting we see Jesus not Cnut, but still it’s a pretty amazing image overall, nothing that some inpainting can’t cure.

I am now faced with decisions about my Critical AI Art projects. While the Witching Cats and Boxmaker works were done with second generation AI image generation services, Doggerland and the Canals of Vilnius could be revised. I likely will do so, but this means potentially all of these works could require a lot of maintenance as these services upgrade and image generation increases in quality.

Constant upgrades have been the case with photography for some time as well. My current generation of cameras, able to capture at least 40 megapixels and, in the case of my workhorses, the Sony A7RV or Leica M11, over 60mp (not to mention the Fuji GFX100S), now have enough resolution that I can’t imagine needing more. Of course 24mp seemed like plenty just a few years ago when I primarily shot with a Fuji X-Pro2, but prints have been growing in size as a glance at photography shows demonstrates. Big prints mean higher resolution. And, so earlier images need to be upscaled using Topaz Gigapixel AI.

As I’ve stated before, like most photography, most AI image generation is quite bad and seeing images of Emma Watson, Cannabis Goddess of Mars [*]or whatever nonsense users of these image generators produce will discourage the more weak-spirited from exploring their potential. No doubt many artists will re-entrench in traditional media such as painting, sculpture, video, film, or film photography (while my father would have been shocked to hear me call film photography a traditional art form, acrylic paints, which he used, are a century newer than photography). The Right, which barely makes anything that can be considered art, will seek to make “trad” art, while the Left will make angry paintings about identity to provoke them. But those are both rearguard movements. Media are developing more rapidly than any time in my entire life. Artists and critics need to engage AI image generators critically on their own terms, not lament for simpler times.

10-10-10 IMAGE.ARCHITECTURE.NOW in Los Angeles

I will be moderating one of the panels at 10-10-10 IMAGE.ARCHITECTURE.NOW, at Woodbury University tomorrow, 9 October in Burbank. My panelists consist of Livia Corona, Frank Escher, Sharon Johnston, and Sze Tsung Leung. Neil Denari moderates the next panel which will include Iwan Baan, Miwon Kwon, Sylvia Lavin, and Linda Taalmann. The whole thing is moderated by Frances Anderton and a fabulous show accompanies.

See more here.  

 

 

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On Architectural Photography Today

As my readers know I am writing a book on network culture* this year. In writing about architecture under network culture, it struck me that the role of architectural photography has changed.

During postmodernism it seemed to observers that architecture was being produced more and more for photography. Kenneth Frampton dubbed architectural photography "an insidious filter through which our tactile environment tends to lose its responsiveness" and complained that the actual buildings that looked so seductive in photographs often were poorly detailed. Fredric Jameson suggested that "it is the value of the photographic equipment you consume first and foremost, not its objects." Under network culture, architecture photography becomes freed from architecture.

To be sure, photographers, particularly members of the Frankfurt School such as Andreas Gursky, Laurenz Berges, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth (and with even if he is an exception due to the constructed nature of his environments, Thomas Demand), have given new, sustained focus on architecture as a subject. Architecture, in this sense, becomes not a matter to represent, but rather a way to represent the delirium of globalized space today. As they do so, these photographs also allude nostalgically to the ambitions of modernism—many of these photographers directly invoke the modern past with their subject matter—and to a time in which architecture was our primary spatial experience of the world, grounding us. 

Still, architecture itself seems to have worked free of architectural photography. No new generation has come up to replace the great late modernist architectural photographers: Marvin Rand, Julius Schulman, and Ezra Stoller. The architecture of network culture has a certain hostility to the photograph, generally refusing—even more than modernist works—to allow for a single viewpoint. The well-worn patch of grass at the Villa Savoye, is foreign to structures like Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, FOA’s Yokohama Terminal, or OMA’s Casa da Musica at Porto. After all, the Bilbao-Effect only works on such structures if they are visited in person whereas many of the icons of postmodernism were private structures and museums had not yet understood the potential of a global tourist draw.

Thus, if the architectural photograph is still necessary so that such works can appear on front page of the New York Times, its less of a self-sufficient sign and more a pointer, an advertisement. This is not to say that the architecture of network culture is not designed on the screen. After all, it but the postmodern role of the fixed architectural photograph as a driver for building design is over.   

  

 

 

 

 

*I am also excited to be teaching a seminar on the topic at Columbia this fall. 

 

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On Facebook Self-Portraits

I am fascinated with the forced exposure that social networking sites create. Via Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s excellent blog The End of Cyberspace, I reached Slate author Brian Braiker’s article on how he finds seeing old images of himself uploaded to the net uncomfortable. From there, I found Euan Kerr’s piece for Minnesota Public Radio exploring the phenomenon of the Facebook self-portrait. This really piqued my interest since I’ve been fascinated by this phenomena since I joined the social network site.

The Facebook self-portrait is a product of network culture that reveals how we construct our identities today. It satisfies the version of Andy Warhol’s rule as modified by Momus: "In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people," except that it’s not the future anymore (in fairness the article is 15 years old) and it’s not 15 but rather 150 or 300 people, a typical number in a circle of friends on a social network site.

The Facebook self-portrait makes everyone a superstar, famous for no particular reason, but notable for their embrace of fame. So it is that on Facebook, I see friends who I never thought of as self-conscious take photographs of remarkable humor, intelligence, and wry self-deprecation. The Facebook self-portrait insists upon mastery over one’s self-image and the instant feedback of digital photography allows us this. Not happy? Well, try again.   

Long ago, when I was in high school, I read a book on the Bloomsbury group. I remember that the caption underneath a group photograph in the book (whose title now escapes me) pointed out that even in this über-hip clique, only one member was relaxed, only one understood that the right pose for the camera was a calculated non-pose. Our idea of the self can be read through such images: from the stiff formality of the painted portrait to the relaxed pose of the photograph to the calculated self-consciousness of the Facebook digital image. Each time, the self becomes a more cunning manipulator of the media. Each time, the self becomes more conscious of being defined outside itself, in a flow of impulses rather than a notion of inner essence.

So it was that in reading the first article, I felt that the author missed his friend Caroline’s point when she told him "You can never be too cool for your past." As your images catch up to you in network culture, you have to become the consummate manipulator of your image, imagery from the past being less an indictment of present flaws and more an indicator of your ability to remake yourself.

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dispersion

I contributed a version of my essay on network culture to the catalog for Dispersion, a show currently on view at the ICA. I’m hoping to make it there before it closes, but do check it out if you’re in London.

    Anne Collier, Folded Madonna Poster (Steven Meisel), 2007. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London.

    Anne Collier, Folded Madonna Poster (Steven Meisel), 2007. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London.

    3 – 23, 27 – 30 Dec 2008, 2 Jan – 1 Feb 2009

    Henrik Olesen, Hito Steyerl, Seth Price, Anne Collier, Hilary Lloyd, Maria Eichhorn and Mark Leckey.

    Dispersion presents seven international artists who work with photography, film, video and performance. All of these artists explore the appropriation and circulation of images in contemporary society, examining the role of money, desire and power in our accelerated image economy – from the art market to the internet and art historical icons to pornography.

    The works in Dispersion often take the form of archives, histories or collections, sometimes adopting an anthropological approach. In many cases, they are characterised by an interest in feminism and gender politics in the realm of sexuality and sub-culture. All the works however are informed by personal or idiosyncratic narratives, exploring the role of subjectivity in the contemporary flow of imagery and capital.

    The title Dispersion is drawn from an essay written by participating artist Seth Price, which reflects on the role of ‘distributed media’ in avant-garde practice, from Duchamp to Conceptual Art. The exhibition has been curated for the ICA by Polly Staple, the recently appointed director of the Chisenhale, London and includes six gallery-based presentations as well as a special performance in the ICA Theatre.

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    for image disembodiment

    In my post on Lebbeus Woods, I suggested that architects might one day find themselves no longer making buildings. This may seem surprising, but we’re only at the dawn of network culture. We were under Fordism from the 1920s to the mid-1960s and under post-Fordism from the mid-1960s until about 2000. So no surprise that we have yet to see the full effects of this era. This essay from the photo blog "the Luminous Landscape" (must reading for photographers) suggests that just as film has faded into history, the print will too. As high definition screens exceed anything that print can do (this will come one day soon), why continue to valorize an outdated technology? 

    And why not? I already barely use my printer for my photographic work. It’s either printed in books and magazines or viewed on the Web. Can any gallery deliver the kind of recognition that Flickr can? Why own? Of course unless things go awry, high definition screens for viewing art will be open and works will soon be pirated and traded openly. You’ll be going to rapidshare to download the newest Gursky. Artists may protest that this is awful. But it isn’t, really, it’s just a different model of property that other fields, like music, have to deal with. 

    Property, it seems, is the last thing to invest in. 

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    fractures

    image of a cracked car hood

    From Eric Kahn of COA comes a photograph of an old car I used to own, a 1983 Saab 900 with a hood that had spiderwebbed under the California sun. After five years, I sold the car to James Lowder, who was then a SCI_Arc student and is now teaching in the architecture program at the University of Buffalo. 

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    Red Arc/Blue Veil

    If you’ve read Blue Monday, then you know that the book is really about an album cover. Given that, I’m particularly glad to announce that one of my photographs has been used for John Luther Adams’s Red Arc/Blue Veil, published by Cold Blue Music.

     

    album cover

     

    The photograph is from the trail up to White Mountain Peak, towering above the Owens Valley as the third highest peak in California. We never made it all the way when we tried scaling it on July 7, 2002, but I took some photographs along our route that we’d use for the Owens Valley Book with CLUI. That evening, while at the Restaurant at Convict Lake, we did some math and realized that Jennifer was pregnant with Viltis, our first child. So it was a memorable day.

    Given the CD, it’s certainly a privilege to have my work on the cover. John Luther Adams is an important composer, working in the tradition of American experimental music. He lives in Alaska and uses his music to evoke the moods of that soundcape. Made up of compositions for percussion and piano, Red Arc/Blue Veil moves between shimmering quiet passages and intense sound. You can get it from the label, Bill Fox’s Cold Blue Music.

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    not one wilshire, newark

    not one wilshire

    In case you were wondering, I am committed to bringing more variety to the rotating Flickr images on the left of this page and started to do so by including recent images from the New Jersey landscape.

    The above building is not One Wilshire, it's One Gateway Center in Newark, next to Newark Penn Station. The planning of Gateway Center was undertaken by Victor Gruen and Cesar Pelli, who worked for Gruen, built the neighboring Western Electric building below.

    Western Electric Building by Cesar Pelli

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