• Ideas
  • Oct 24, 2023

Promptography: The Beginning of the End?

ANNIKA NORDENSKIOLD’s Twin Sisters In Love, 2023. Courtesy Ballarat International Foto Biennale. 

The oldest surviving photograph dates back to 1827, when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce set up a camera obscura near a window in his family estate and, over the course of several days, exposed a lavender-oil-and-bitumen-coated pewter plate to sunlight, capturing a hazy view of his sun-drenched courtyard. 

As Niépce’s invention developed into daguerreotypes, mirror cameras, instantaneous exposures, and finally, the Kodak film camera, the arts community famously despaired, fearing that photography would render painting obsolete. In fact, the opposite phenomenon occurred, instead inspiring the Impressionist movement and revolutionizing how art’s proposed purpose was evaluated. 

A similar debate is currently unfolding as AI-generated imagery faces the photography world head on. Indeed, at this year’s Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB) in Australia, Swedish artist Annika Nordenskiöld was awarded AUD 2,000 (USD 1,300) for her uncanny work Twin Sisters In Love, a sepia-toned “photograph” featuring two girls cradling a writhing octopus, the rightmost sister tightly pressing her face against the creature’s swirling tentacles. 

Remarkably—or perhaps obviously—Nordenskiöld’s work is a not a real photograph. The artist fed prompts to Midjourney, an artificial intelligence service, marking the first time that an AI-generated image has won a photography prize. While earlier this year German artist Boris Eldagsen was awarded Sony’s prestigious World Photography Award for his AI work The Electrician, he rejected the prize due to his image’s artificiality, stating on his website that the two mediums are “different entities” and “should not compete with each other.” He later told the Sydney Morning Herald that he is “seen as the Che Guevara of analogue photographs.” 

In fact, the artist’s rejection of the prize inspired the BIFB to create an exclusively AI category, the international “Prompted Peculiar” award, where Eldagsen served as a judge. Nordenskiöld won first place out of 100 other submissions for the category, while Melbourne-based artist Hanna Silver was awarded the People’s Choice Prize for Robot Intermarriage, Melbourne 1895. BIFB’s chief executive Vanessa Gerrans explicated the Biennale’s decision to create the AI-specific category: "Knowing we want to be part of this conversation, we reacted by staging an AI-only show, so it's not competing with photography in an exhibition as such, but it's part of a photographic festival." 

HANNAH SILVER’s Robot Intermarriage, Melbourne 1895, 2023. Courtesy Ballarat International Foto Biennale.

The BIFB’s decision to celebrate AI photography stands in stark contrast to other photo festivals and awards, such as Magnum Photos’ latest Square Print Sale, in collaboration with the World Press Photo Foundation. Titled “Written by Light,” the sale’s theme is intended to emphasize the fundamental difference between photography and AI imagery: capturing light. Magnum president Cristina de Middel explained: “The time feels right to go back to our roots and reflect on the very origins of our photographic practice, to the camera obscura, and how an image is recorded by the impact of light on a surface.” Expanding on her fears regarding AI technology, de Middel noted: “We are worried about the impact a misleading use of AI can have on the already wounded credibility of the media more than anything. . . [we] are pushing for labeling protocols that could prevent manipulation via imagery.” 

The BIFB award also comes amid heightened conversations concerning the validity of AI artwork, as just last month a judge ruled that an AI-generated image could not be protected by copyright claims. On the flipside, Midjourney and Deviant face litigation over their illegal use of artists’ work to train their models, and Getty Images recently sued Stability AI over similar claims. While courts, artists, and tech companies all appear at a loss over how to reckon with the legality of such tools, the suits demonstrate AI’s undeniable relevance in the industry’s future. 

After the prize was announced, Eldgasen and Gerrans both emphasized the need for a roundtable discussion on how the photography community ought to distinguish the mediums going forward. “There are clearly unresolved issues around moral rights and consent; these are the conversations we need to start having so we can make sure we’re primed and acting ethically and responsibly,” Gerrans concluded.

As the arts community struggles to determine the legitimacy and morality of AI-generated imagery, it may be helpful to return to similar moments in history, such as the now-laughable fears over photography’s threat to painting. New genres of art are after all almost always contested, particularly by those who are already accustomed to a certain style, or by those whose job it is to judge what is being created. These debates are not frivolous, but rather set the stage for future artists and critics who seek to push the boundaries of centuries-old mediums.

That is to say, ignoring or banning new technology, AI-generated or otherwise, will not make it go away. Leaning into it, however, may very well uncover novel forms of artmaking, aiding our understanding of new mediums and the historical moments they emerge from. 

Anna Lentchner is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific. 

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