The Role of Film Photography in an AI World – By Joseph

The position of film photography has never been stronger. Against the intangibility of our virtual reality, the medium of photography and its process gives viewers the craved tangibility of physical reality and tactility. There is now a desire for presence. 

People crave realness, authenticity and tactility in artworks, not one that only possesses a brain but with heart and soul. We want to feel the presence of the artist through the artwork. We desire artworks that serve a purpose, not just to illustrate an idea but to create a sense of awe that increases knowledge. 

As AI-generated art becomes easily available to the public, I want to highlight three natures of film photography that makes it unique.

Film photography is intimate

It is near and it is close. Physically, the photographer encounters his subjects. Emotionally, his subjects draw him to release the shutter. The intimate exchange and sharing of a moment, of a now, to create an artwork makes the photographs unique. The physical film that captured it was present at that moment, and a darkroom print that was made afterwards was also physically close to the film. Unlike a digital work that can be sent and transferred virtually, a silver-gelatin print is an immediate artwork created through an intimate process.

Film photography is human

It can be senseless, disorderly, or derived as a non-construct. Unlike AI-generated art that follows a formula, the thinking (and feeling) person can make ‘bad’ photographs, making all the mistakes, and breaking all the rules to construct an image that is lacking in subject and object. Yet, the image, however chaotic, urges the viewers to find some logic and process behind the artist’s choices. While chaos from an AI is seen as a mistake, an artwork from a human being, going against the conventional, only reveals the unique quality of humans. We are beings that not only think but are also aware that we are thinking.

Film photography is evidence

Photography stands unique amongst artistic mediums as one which uses reality as its paint. These captured happenings, regardless of authenticity, must have existed somewhere at some point in time. It is this special quality that photography has that not only sets itself apart from AI-generated artwork but also other forms of traditional artistic medium. When (knowingly) looking at an AI-generated image, the sense of reverence is immediately withdrawn from its audience. A barrier between artwork and the audience is created as the line between virtual and reality is drawn. Whereas an authentic photo forces the audience to confront reality. Be it a personal memory of a person, a place, or the collective memory of one as a participant in culture, photography is evidence of an event that happened in the past, and possesses the power to connect us as part of a shared story.


I hope that these three points would encourage film photographers to see their craft in a new light and to understand that the position of film photography is unique and unthreatened. A good photographer can reach beyond the spectacle that AI-generated art can produce and seize their viewer’s attention. If you find an AI replacing your work, perhaps it is because they are not human enough.

Joseph Tan

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31 thoughts on “The Role of Film Photography in an AI World – By Joseph”

  1. Thank you for your thoughts Joseph! AI is nothing more than an algorithm that steals bits and pieces of existing images and puts them together in a generic image. AI will replace you if your photography, or writing, is nothing more than a generic rehash of images you see on the internet. Humans are creative in random and unpredictable ways; AI is not! I agree that AI represents an opportunity – the desire for authentic, lasting, and real images will grow!

    1. jalan. Modern AI is the opposite of scripted algorithms. A correctly trained ai is imaginative in a way you cannot imagine. If ai is able to do anything, it’s to avert expectations.

      There are a lot of unresolved questions. Both ethically and technically… But we have to learn to live with it. It can be a massive tool to inspire.

  2. Could you clarify what is meant by ‘AI generated art’, perhaps with reference to specific software? I think I understand your argument but want to know more precisely with what we are comparing film photography.

    1. I admit that I could have a more thorough study on the types of ‘AI generation’ before writing. While I was writing, I was thinking of Stable Diffusion type of deep learning AI, one which generates pictures from text to image or image to image. I had written this piece with Guy Debord’s philosophy of ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ at the back of my mind. Primarily, I was reacting to the fears of content/image makers who felt threatened by technology which would replace their work. I would like to know, in other contexts, how other types of ‘AI generated art’ would render my arguments different.

  3. How do you know a photo has been generated by (or with the help of) an AI? There will be a point, if not arrived at already, that difference is not discernable.

    1. Taking the position that a photo generated with the help of AI can be imperceptible, my main point is that a real image is real. Your comment reminds me of one definition of knowledge. Knowledge can be defined as a justified true belief. That implies that being true, whether distinguishable or not, is a virtue. The question then is what is the value of having this virtue?

      1. What is “real” is a deep rabbit hole. The only thing I know for sure is I am an actor experiencing something we call life. Everything else could well be a hallucination. Metaphysics is hard. I use any tool at my disposal. Calling anything ‘AI’ is a bugaboo. I’ve studied it and got degrees, and it still has mystery to it. But art needs some tools. AI is just another tool. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

        1. True, it is difficult to tackle such a complex topic when a priori has not been established.
          If we were to consider this in the context of Plato’s idea of the perfect form, my arguments quickly fall apart.

          My main argument is that with the rise of AI-generated art, film photography’s position is actually being strengthen. Film photography, being the art form that probably has the closest connection with the physical world, has such an opportunity to stand out in contrast as the world moves deeper into virtual reality. The quality of it being ‘True’ (as in very physical) is a very unique characteristic that we should celebrate.

  4. Hi Joseph,

    Very thought-provoking reading, thank you.

    I believe that the goal of AI should be to eventually make itself indistinguishable from other forms of intelligence. As it improves, I believe it actually will compete with organic intelligence, though I don’t welcome that day.

    Your image of the fire site is an example of where AI is not there yet. It was a discovery process for me to go from the articles on the sidewalk (which I perceive as some type of memorial), to the person looking up, to the smoke/fire damage to the front of the building. I believe that the current state of AI would not produce such a complex and layered image.

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Reed,

      Thank you for reading and I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

      To add on to what you’ve said, I feel that even if an AI could produce a complex and layered image, art could never be produced independent of a human. What I mean is that there still needs to be an audience member to make sense and interpret the image. Perhaps an artwork is only completed within an audience’s mind, where he co-creates with his opinion, meaning and significance.

      Thank you!

  5. To be honest, I’m not sure that contemporary curators will be that interested in the aspect of evidence in film photographs, or the process involved in making them.

    Contemporary art curators value novelty and concept.

    I’d expect to see a wave of machine-learning made art including ‘photographs’ coming up and being considered ‘high art’, because that’ll be the shiny new object for a while.

    I think we might we might be seeing a lot of the notion of artwork becoming legitimate when viewed by a human though. That’s been a pillar of belief in the art world conferring status on all kinds of machine assisted creative processes ever since the industrial revolution.

    1. My favourite art exhibit was at a media art gallery at which an artist installed a robot to draw portraits of volunteers.

      The computer had two cameras for eyes, and a mechanical arm with a pencil attached. The artist/creator wrote the code and ran it, and the robot did the rest.

      The results were anywhere from 5 second scribbles, to well over an hour long sitting. The portraits were not spectacular, but they sometimes resembled the person.

      The best part was that the artist did not know how or when the code decided to end.

      Most artists are robotic in their stylings. Why can’t robots be artists?!

  6. Joseph, This is a complex issue with no easy answers. I am currently in production of an exhibit, Harvest Festival memories, devoted to a small farming community event that takes place every October. I believe photos can be personal but one of it’s strengths is the ability to be a shared experience. This shared experience, as people recognize and remember people, places and moments is what has always attracted me to photography and is an aspect that can’t really be invented only mimicked. The fact that I’ve used film to document this event from 1986 to 2022 probably only matters to me but the tangible objects of negatives or slides does lend a certain amount of provenance. The movie ‘Dark City’ touches on altered reality concepts and how physical prints can be misleading so the negative still provides a tangible proof that I was there… I think.

    1. That sounds like an amazing production. Do you have a place where you show the images online? I would love to look at them! Yes, I really feel that the film negative is such an important object.

      I imagine the significance of owning and holding a silver gelatin print of the image capture by Robert Capa during the Omaha Beach Landings on D-Day. I believe that the print would carry a different sense of awe. And then, think about holding the actual negative of the image. That’s what led me to believe that there’s something special and intimate relationship film has with the shared moment.

      I always wonder how I can present and image with the film negative, and how it would make a difference in an exhibition.

      1. I am sorry to say I presently have no web page or social media platform where my work can be viewed. My hope is to have a site by the opening of my exhibit in May of this year. I think the method of capture and the physical print are two different things. As a digital darkroom specialist I always strive to make the print to be more than the original file whether film or digital. I don’t need to know what the original looked like in order to appreciate the print more unless it is a restoration. A photographers vision begins with the pressing of the shutter but a beautiful print can entail many layers of subtlety to complete that vision.

        Pertaining to the ‘not human enough’ I like a quote attributed to Leonardo DaVinci that goes something like “Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art”.

  7. I’m a big fan of the “perhaps it is because they are not human enough”. I have started to see this in music as well. The AI generated stuff, to me, doesn’t have the emotion that human produced music does.

    1. AI-generated work (the type which takes from a library of per-existing work) feels like an echo chamber. It reminds me of the post-modern art movement when art look at its predecessor (modern art) and reacts to it by deconstructing or adding and mixing up more content. I might be bulldozing my way with oversimplification, but I do wonder if art created with the help of AI could inspire anything that is truly new.

  8. Until AI can create a physical negative, I don’t have to worry about my blurry, poorly exposed pics being mistaken for some piece of AI artwork.

  9. I appreciate the thoughts, though I can’t say I fully agree with all of it.

    Two points are pet peeves: please call it deep learning, rather than AI. It is not intellegent as long as it doesn’t know it’s wrong autonomously. The other point is that I fail to see why film photography would be any different from digital photography for the points you raise, apart from having a physical negative. As much as I like shooting film, ultimately it’s about making worth-while images – the medium on which it is captured is really a secondary matter.

    But the core point I disagree: it is an assumption that machine learning cannot reach the level of a really good photographer. It is, at this point in time at least, completely unknown where its limits will be. This technology is rapidly maturing, but still quite young.
    That line between life-like and virtual may not at all be obvious when you’re unaware how the image was generated. I’ve seen very competent studio portraits. Only to learn afterwards that the people in the photo do not exist as it was machine learning that made it.
    It’s too early to make conclusions about what this technology can and cannot achieve in these terms.

    Which doesn’t change that deep learning can and will impact photography. I spent some time thinking it over too ( My conclusion, however, was that there are two things where deep learning cannot replace human photographers: the ability to respond immediately to a specific situation, and perceive the value of that specific moment. That split second where you see the light is just perfect…or the action tells a story worth telling, etc.
    The other thing: in order to continue to evolve, and deal with real-world changes, the machine learning data sets will need fresh data. If we all stop making photos, deep learning will continue to creates images that look like 2021/2022.

    Ultimately, though…. just do what you enjoy doing. I like making photos, the fact that others also create photos has no influence on me liking to make photos, nor the photos I make. Machine learning in that sense is just another photographer to me.

    1. Very insightful article! I agree that using the term deep learning would indeed help to better understand and describe what is happening. Very interesting conclusion also, I can imagine very creative works that could come out just by following those two ideas. Thank you for your contribution.

  10. I’m going to play devil’s advocate and disagree with your basic premise – a photograph, even one produced with film, is no more “real” than any other form of art. At 1/125 of a second per shot an entire 36-exposure roll of film wouldn’t even fill the space of one blink of an average human eye. So these slices of time are inherently not “real” to us because we can’t perceive them using our ordinary senses. It’s only when perusing the finished work, without the constraints of “reality,” that we can perceive shapes and depth and reflected light that become an artistic depiction of a moment we didn’t really see as it happened.

    1. A very thoughtful comment. I did think of Plato’s theory of forms. The idea that even, for instance, the chair you are sitting on (experiencing) right now is just a shadow mimicking the true and perfect form of a chair or even of itself.

      Perhaps the use of ‘real’ is problematic to being with. But I do think that there’s a difference between being there to capture something that has happened in the physical realm versus a generated reality. The idea of touch, presence, and tactility.

  11. These are good points, if you already acknowledge that art is worth the effort. I shoot film, and I do subscribe to that paradigm.

    But AI “art” appeals to people who have little or no interest or self-discipline in creating real images. Therefore, they have to destroy the perceived value of the real.

    The faux-relativist comments above are just the tip of the iceberg of these bad-faith arguments. Some of these folks are people who never tried to create art. Some are people who gave up trying and think they found an easier way of creating art without skill. But all are willing to abandon the process of creation to simply rehash the works of others, in the hope that they can stamp their name on it and take some profit from it without having to grow a skillset.

    You won’t win them over on a definition of reality because they have a vested interest in disputing that definition to shoehorn their graphic outputs into some sort of peer relationship with art that takes effort.

    1. When we get tired of the same ‘pretty’ and ‘spectacular’ that keeps us intellectually and emotionally sedated, perhaps it would force us to rethink the definition of beauty.

  12. Very interesting article! Reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” which broadly goes against photographs as work of art because they are technically perfectly reproducible and lack the “aura”, the uniqueness and artistic authenticity of a work of art.
    I would argue that a negative has some aura, as as you say it has the unique quality of being in a certain place at a certain time (at the time of exposure and after development it remains an artifact), but being just an intermediate step towards a photograph can we consider it a work of art by itself?
    Maybe the digitalization and binning of the negatives could be a performance act in which we destroy the last bit of aura that still exist in analog photography 😉

    1. Oh no! Destroying the negatives!? That said, very interesting thought, I’d like to consider and some day present film negatives as an artifact which holds it own and not just a means to an end.

      It does feel like, as we perpetually progress in the age of mechanical reproduction, there’s a lack of commitment by viewers when they are presented with an image. Some artist address that by increasing the stakes, creating art with shock value. I do wonder how awe and aura can be captured and presented in an image-object.

        1. Most people lack intention, they just leave them to clutter at their local film developing lab. Do you know the artist Damien Hirst’s work titled ‘The Currency’? It runs parallel of the thought you shared.

  13. The position of film photography is not strong but just popular. There is a difference between when one has the only option to use film cameras due to the natural limitations of the technology and when some (yes many but still some) decide to use some specific media due to the high popularity. And many of them use these old cameras fully automatically without exposure understanding i already dont talk about self developing, scanning or dark room printing. The chemicals are not too available as the different kinds of film. Some of them just stopped being produced. I can’t call this process strong.

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