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Will AI-Generated Images Kill the Art of Photography?

a dude fighting the rise of AI-generated images

Generative AI is arguably the most disruptive technology introduced to the world in the last year. It’s had widespread impacts already in a variety of fields and threatens to result in broad job displacements. Meanwhile, educational systems are struggling to deal with ChatGPT-created student assignments, bestseller lists are trying to manage fake book reviews that result in AI-generated publications attaining top positions, and even major magazines and news publications are beginning to replace traditional journalism with generative AI content. But perhaps one of the most interesting developments involves the rise of AI-generated images. Given their quality and potential, many question what AI and the future of photography look like. Some suggest generative AI could be the end of photographic art as we know it.

the rise of AI-generated images on a chalkboard
The rise of AI-generated images could mean trouble for actual photography.

(Sports Illustrated got stung by the AI stinger–read how bad it was in this Bold story.)

As most are aware, generative AI can create extremely realistic images that effectively look like photographs. Using trillions of existing photographic images as part of its training dataset, various AI platforms have become quite good. This has led to a marked rise in AI-generated images over the last several months. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell what’s an actual photograph and what’s not. Of course, this is not the first time technological advances have raised questions about the direction photography will go. But somehow, things seem different this time. This is why many are concerned about AI and the future of photography as both a career and as an art form. Understanding this, it’s worth exploring various perspectives when it comes to the current rise of AI-generated images.

A Historical Perspective on Photography

In thinking about photography, it can be described as the process of capturing a visual perspective of the real world. Over the course of time, this process of capturing has involved different technologies. From film to digital sensors, photographic images sought to freeze-frame a moment in time of reality. The image captured thus reflected not only physical reality but likewise an essence of truth. With the rise of AI-generated images, this truth is much more distorted if not undermined altogether. Generative AI can now create photographic images derived from trillions of other actual photographs. But the end result is not necessarily anything real but instead derived from the real. Therefore, can AI and the future of photography coexist?

From a historical perspective, one could easily answer, “yes.” After all, how many images today are manipulated without the use of AI? Photoshopped images abound on the Internet and in marketing. Likewise, every smartphone and digital camera software offer filters, special effects, and other additions from which to choose. When these technologies arrived as well as the introduction of digital photography, similar arguments existed. This would suggest that AI and the future of photography will be different but not mutually exclusive. However, it must also be noted that the underlying template of existing software remains a snapshot of the physical world. This is not the case with generative AI and the marked rise of AI-generated images today.

a brain inside a camera aperture
Are people still going to want to take pictures now that AI can generate whatever they want to see?

Potential Threats of AI-Generated Images

Given the rise of AI-generated images and the potential to create photos from scratch, threats do exist. These threats involve not only photography as an art form but more practical issues as well. For example, current photographic software can make it difficult to determine what is truly real versus that which is enhanced. AI-generated images simply raise the bar in this regard, increasing the risk of fake images used for manipulation. But many are quick to point out that all photographs are subjective in nature and can be used to manipulate. Photographers make conscious and unconscious decisions on which photographs to take. They have inherent biases and perspectives that affect these choices. And photographs can always be presented out of context to persuade viewers of specific messages. As such, the subjectivity of AI and the future of photography is not something completely new.

Certainly, the rise of AI-generated images threatens the livelihood of some commercial photographers. The ability to rapidly create photorealistic images on demand will be a tool marketing companies and others will utilize. This will require existing photographers in these fields to become AI-content creators and editors perhaps. It will also require viewers of these images to be more discerning when it comes to interpreting them. A photograph, AI-generated or otherwise, always demands a level of interpretation. Photographs alone do not depict reality or truth in total. Instead, these represent a visual perspective from which one must determine relevance and realness. AI and the future of photography will demand more of us in this regard. But such demands already exist today to a lesser extent.

An Artist’s Point of View

AI and the future of photography on a chalkboard
AI and the future of photography: can they coexist?

Starting from the point of view that all photography is subjective, some artists see the rise of AI-generated images differently. They don’t necessarily see AI as being a threat involving fake imagery and inevitable manipulation. Instead, they see generative AI and the future of photography as a next step in evolution. Rather than consuming images and visual perspectives of the world, AI offers a chance to become more creative. Given that “real” forms have been used to train generative AI platforms, AI images are just as real as actual digital snapshots. The difference is simply that a new technological tool exists to help express these real forms in a more efficient manner.

(If you don’t want AI to steal your content and get away with it, someone developed AI poison–read all about it in this Bold story.)

The debate between whether or not the rise of AI-generated images reflects photography won’t likely be resolved. But it’s clear that for the time being, the use of AI and the future of photography must coexist. Those who accept a broader definition of photography will be the ones who explore new artistic pursuits. Utilizing AI’s inherently massive datasets of photographs to produce new creations offers an exciting opportunity. They may not depict reality or truth as well as past versions of photography did. But then again, perhaps all forms of photography are lacking in this regard. Will generative AI kill the art of photography? Not likely. But it’s certain to leave a permanent imprint it for the future.


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