In a world where fame flames out after a few hours on social media platform, I am here to tell you don’t let it go to your head. One recent weekend, I began to glow in the warm light of meme ability. It started with a text exchange.
PF Bentley, a friend of mine, is one of the best-known American photojournalists of his generation. He’s part of the group of Time-Life photographers who made the transition from film to digital in front-line trenches. He’s also pretty good at Photoshop.
So on this particular morning, before I could get a few sips of coffee down my parched throat, a text message woke up my ancient smartphone (an iPhone 8 in a world where iPhone 14s are carried by kids, the technology equivalent of having a wood, wall mounted hand crank telephone on your nightstand.)
As I read the small iPhone monitor, I began to figure out PF’s text was about a new Photoshop feature called “Generative AI.” In layman’s language, generative AI is a powerful feature of Photoshop Beta that allows you to switch out major and minor elements of a photograph with one or two clicks of a mouse change the meaning of a photograph. It raises the existential question: what is reality and don’t we have an obligation to truth?
I’m an old school photographer who is called euphemistically a hybrid shooter. I enjoy shooting film for its own sake (and charm) but definitely don’t turn my nose up at digital cameras. My main photography kit is built around an Olympus mirrorless system.
PF had sent me a copy of photo of me, with a digital camera up to my face. I was standing next to a field of rocks on the eastern shoreline of the island of Molokai photographing the rocky shoreline.
But also in the text was a second photo – it was the same image of me, but in the second photograph, I was no longer standing on a rocky beach but on an apparently remote road photographing a thick swarm of snakes, one of which was wrapping itself around my right ankle!
Well, that got my attention. PF passed along a few links to YouTube and photo forum discussions about Generative AI. I understand it’s appeal, though I’ve never been a photographer who changes out skies to goose up an otherwise boring photo. There are some situations where I do edit with AI-based features, such as skin softening presets. That feature is particularly important when I make portraits of older women. But even in that situation, it’s better to edit with a light hand.
I asked PF if he would mind if I posted the two photos at Facebook and Instagram. The response came quickly: “To my way of thinking, we are losing something,” said educator Clark Graham;” and, Allan Miller noted, “The danger of AI cannot be underestimated.
But then Eric Cano, a young man who I helped get into photography and who is really good at using Photoshop, posted in the responses yet another Generative AI version of the original photo. This time, I was wearing safari-ish clothing (totally new styles and coloring). And instead of snakes, I was apparently about to walk into the outer edges of a pride of tigers (top).
What followed was an engaged conversation among a wide variety of people about what constituted “truth” in photography. And then a fourth version of the photo but this time I was standing on railroad tracks new morning with a big, hulking locomotive bearing down on me.
I suspect we’re on the front edge of the Generative AI debate. What makes it of concern is not what it can do – Photoshop has offered a way to do the same features for some time – rather it is the ease with which a photograph’s reality can be changed. In the age of “Fake News” charges and counter-charges, photojournalism and all the “news” photos that stream across our social media feeds every day become suspect.
As for me, I think one of my friends said it best, noting after the “safari” version of the photo was posted, “You never have to leave home!!”
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