What Do We Call AI-Photography?

We need a name for this new thing, this new way of generating photo-realistic images. That name sure isn’t “photography.”

There is a great outcry amongst the Twittering masses over this question, every photographer now a philosopher, ontology replacing cryptocurrency as the consuming topic of both those who sense photography’s death and those who see its technological rebirth.

AI-photography cannot be photography, they say, because there is no photon, no light, used in its creation, it is a ruined, terrible form of art. AI-photography, the others say, is so obviously photography, an unbroken technological lineage from the Camera Obscura to MidJourney, an art form now perfected.

Both are wrong.

Every MidJourney “photograph” is deeply rooted in photons, photons that make images, images that make libraries of images, libraries of images upon which MidJourney draws to produce its seemingly photon-less results. Every pixel of a MidJourney “photograph” starts as a photon somehow, somewhere.

At the same time, AI-photography is not just some evolution of the art form. It is a great disruption of the art form and, in fact (photographers are incredibly myopic) so many art forms. AI does photography but it also does motion pictures, it does graphic novels, “digital paintings,” and illustrations in any style. Attach an AI to a 3D printer or CNC machine and AI will do sculpture. Connect it up with a computerized loom and AI will happily do textile arts. Name an art form that cannot be threatened by AI and before the sound of those words die on your lips you will think of a way to incorporate a computerized segment into that workflow.

All of these disparate AI forms share two characteristics and it is these characteristics that will give this new thing a name.

First, like some super-charged Sol LeWitt, this new thing starts not with the brush or the camera or the chisel but with the description of the work to be produced. It starts with the meta-data. To create a work of art with AI you describe it. Currently, the form of the description is with a “prompt” which suggests a subject or subjects, the style in which the image is the be created, the medium it is to emulate, and so forth. These descriptions are often subtle and complicated and already certain users have shown great ability in teasing compelling work out of the AI. The meta-data photographers are familiar with—all that hidden data on f-stops and shutter speeds and location and film emulation—seem like outputs from the image creation process, but there is no particular reason this must be the case. AI demonstrates the power of meta-data as an input to image creation.

The second characteristic that all AI art shares is meta in nature, too. That library of existing images, like the background influences of any artist, midwife the birth of every AI picture. Before we kept in our memories, or roaming secretly in some subconscious of our mind, images we have seen before, scenes we’d encountered in the physical world. We maintained our own image reference library in our own neural network and in our work as artists we never questioned the legitimacy of those influences, no matter how we remixed them. AI gives us now access to a larger meta-library, as big as the World Wide Web, and who would not quail a bit wondering if the remixing of references would do just fine on autopilot?

And so we have two characteristics that define AI art, an explicit set of meta-descriptions combined with an implicit set of influences from a meta-library of reference images.

Photography got its name from the characteristic that made it special, which differentiated it from other art forms. It wasn’t hyperrealism and not even the use of a camera. It was the photon that, for most purposes, gave photography its identity.

AI art relies on meta-descriptions and a meta-library and the name of this new thing, the name that describes what makes it special and differentiates it from other art forms, is Meta-Art, and we are all witnessing its arrival, the herald of some singularity.