Capture the spirit of times when something new unsettles the existing status quo in art.

Many artists, at various points in history, have stood where we as photographers are now—feeling the pressure from new, emerging technologies and wondering about our place in the evolution of a craft.  Today, it’s the concern that our photograph could be used without permission to train AI tools.  It’s a genuine and shared feeling among many photographers. Similarly, the emerging “artists” who create seemingly genuine photographs using AI might seem like unwarranted competition, especially when they win photography contests, again, and again.

It’s not just about AI creating art, but also about AI enhancing—or some might say altering—the pure essence of a photograph. We’ve all seen those breathtaking images with surreal skies or ethereal landscapes.  We enjoy and marvle at the photographer’s preparation tor showing up at the perfect time of year and day, waiting for the perfect weather, painstaking enduring the elements, expense, and discomfort, to capture the perfect image.  Or we envy their masterful use of Photoshop and Lightroom development tools to reduce the areas of story distraction, and enhance the image story.

But then we find out, no, AI tools transformed an otherwise ordinary image into something fantasy.

At what point does a photograph, so deeply interwoven with AI’s magic, cease to be ‘genuine’? And is ‘genuine’ the authority on what should be considered ‘art’?  Straight Out Of Camera photographers cherish the moments of authenticity, the raw emotions, and the untouched beauty of nature, human subjects and architecture photography.  Some of us embraced Photoshop and Lightroom, even before we embrace “digital” photography.   Do tools overshadow authenticity as the artist’s vision and creativity is realized through AI point-and-click technology?

With that in mind, I think we find ourselves called to reflect on our definitions and the values we have about “Photography”, or Art in general.

Uncredited Photographs in AI Art Training

In order for AI Art programs to generate realistic results, either as edits to a photo or to generate an entirely new fictional photograph, the software needs to be trained on “real” photographs.  Unfortunately, that can mean photographs are being used for AI training without the photographer’s permission.

Getty Images has taken legal action against Stability AI, the creators of the open-source AI art generator Stable Diffusion, alleging the illicit use of over 12 million images from its database. The lawsuit asserts that Stability AI used these images to bolster its competing business without obtaining permission or providing compensation.  And that’s a claim being disputed based on “tranformative use” — but hard to deny when Getty Images logos and watermarks are showing up in Stable Defusion-generated images.

Stability AI, along with another AI art startup named Midjourney, is also facing a lawsuit in the US by three artists aiming for a class action.  This issue is so heated, there’s now a website where you can search for your own images in AI training data.

But let’s be fair, this isn’t a new problem. Our photographs have been used without our permission for a very long time, a problem made even more difficult to control since posting pictures on the internet became the norm.  As a long-term user of Pixus.com, I’ve been chasing down unauthorized use of my images for many years.

Unfortunately, many of the websites that use my images without permission are hosted in countries that do not recognize or enforce US/UK/EU copyright laws.  Or on web hosting platforms that do not respond to takedown notices.  If you follow me on FB, you may have seen my occasional complaints about the Kid’s Rockabilly Dress photoshoot that is constantly stolen from my Flickr page.

My photograph stolen by dozens of websites over the years.

What are my options?  Well, to close my flickr account and never share my work.  Is that a realistic way to express and exercise creative interests?  To just, stop showing artwork work?

Picturing the Harmony: AI Imaging Coexisting with Traditional Photography

Today’s talented painters are still talented and producing cherished art.  Last night at church, our foyer displayed an amazing painting of a seascape with a paper boat, and if you got extremely close, the waves revealed the names of people who had passed from COVID19.

Envisioning a world where both AI and traditional photography are celebrated isn’t a dreal, its a future reality. Photographic work won’t be overshadowed by generative art.  They shouldn’t enter the same competitive races, that would be like entering a photograph into a watercolor contest.  The ethical evaluation of the art’s category isn’t the same as arguing the artistic value of the work.

Both artworks stand in an exhibit, each credited and appreciated for their unique contributions. There’s long-term respect for photography and AI-generated works. Both can be seen as two sides of storytelling.

From Rivalry to Revelry: Embracing the Evolution of Art

There is strong historical precedents where the old order felt threatened by the new.

  • The Canvas vs The Camera: Traditional painters initially felt that photography was a mechanical, emotionless craft.  When some painters took photographs as reference material, some old-school painters called this “dishonest”.
  • Film vs Digital: Film photographers perceived digital photography as “cheating” or diluting the art’s essence.  Film photographers used the early technological shortcomings (like sensor sensitivity, color “banding”, and sensor megapixel size limits) as proof that Digital Photography would never succeed.
  • SooC vs Photoshop: Image manipulation has been a hot topic in our collective minds for quite a while, especially within the context of Advertising.  As professional and hobby photographers, we love to think that all our images are Straight out of Camera representations.  In honesty, converting from RAW to JPG is a manipulation of the image.  There really isn’t a true SooC photograph since slide film.
  • Digital vs Smartphone: Seasoned photographers felt smartphones were toys, not real cameras.  Some people still think that, while also admiring well-composed, storytelling images not realizing they are iPhone photos.
  • DSLR vs Mirrorless: The debate on the authenticity of the craft based on the equipment used was a raging debate only 5 years ago.  If a photographer showed up at a wedding with a mirrorless, they were not a “serious professional” … simply because the camera lacked a mirror.

Many of us are old enough to remember the Film vs Digital debate, and may have even participated, arguing that Digital Photography could never meet the nuance, tonal range, and craftsmanship that came with dipping paper into tubs of happy-smelling chemicals.  But here we are, posting digital photos for likes — including some taken with a telephone.

With time, each technology found its place, bringing along its set of admirers and professionals. AI Imaging, too, will find its unique space. As with any evolution, there are initial bumps, but the essence of art remains.  Historically, artists from all mediums have manipulated their works to evoke certain emotions or portray specific messages.

Reflecting on Art’s Boundless Horizon

Have you ever stopped to ponder how AI image generation could enhance, not endanger, your photographic journey? As artists, can we find space in our hearts to admire and respect all forms of art? Remember, every photograph you take during photowalks captures a moment in time that AI cannot replicate—it’s your unique perspective.  So you can continue your journey without fear.  Meanwhile, you can also experiment with AI image manipulation to extend your artistic vision.

Join us for photowalks, embrace every new horizon, and let’s redefine art together.

FAQ: Debunking the Myths Around AI Art

Let’s be honest, you know how my brain works, I like FAQs, they are easy to write and easy to read.  So here’s some breakdowns of this subject, in FAQ form.

Isn’t AI art just plagiarism?

Not necessarily. While there may be instances where some misuse photographs in their AI art, responsible AI artists employ general data sets or use their own images, without violating copyrights. AI artists, like painters, sculptors, and us photographers, aspire to bring their creative vision to life using their chosen tools. Their primary aim is to evoke emotions and be acknowledged for the impact of their creations. Denying the profound “wow” moment experienced when viewing an impressive piece of AI art might indicate a lack of objective appreciation of art, AI and otherwise.

Can AI art be copyrighted?

AI-generated art is currently considered public domain upon creation, under U.S. law.  Similar to a recent case of an animal taking selfies, AI is considered ineligible for copyright submission and protection.  Of course, that could always change with the right legal case.

How much ‘editing’ can I make to my photograph and it still be ‘art’?

Art is subjective and varies across cultures, audiences, and individual interpretations.  In photography, whether it’s dodging and burning in the darkroom or using digital tools today, editing has always been a part of the process. The key is authenticity to your vision and intent. If the editing aligns with the message or emotion you aim to convey, it remains art. However, it’s crucial to avoid misrepresentation, especially when submitting to photography contests that define specific rules.

If AI plays a significant role in creating a piece, can I still call it ‘my art’?

Collaboration has always been a part of artistic endeavors, just list like the derivative nature of artistic technique.  If you’re guiding the process, making critical decisions, using tools to realize your artist expression, then yes, the resulting art can very much be considered your creation.  I say this irrespective of the tool you used, including feathering your paint brush, dodging and burning a print with cardboard, using Photoshop content-aware fill tools, or generative AI. The key lies in understanding and acknowledging the role AI played in the process, not letting AI control the process leading to art you never intended, but want to claim as your own.

Embracing Change Without Losing Sight

Roughly a decade ago, I unveiled a plugin for Lightroom in a partnership with Meetup.com called LightUp. It was a simple plugin, all it did was upload photowalk photos into Meetup’s event image albums.  Among the earliest feedback I received was an impassioned email from an individual who believed tools like Lightroom plugins were diluting the essence of creativity.  His fervor against the perceived menace of Lightroom presets had blinded him to the practicality of the tool I wrote actually did.

This makes me wonder – as advancements like AI photo editing emerge, are we at risk of potentially overlooking their utility because of preconceived notions? The artistic world has seen its fair share of resistance to new mediums and techniques, like how early photographers were treated by traditional painter. Every tool, old or new, is just a means to bring our creative visions to life.

Picture this: an intrusive red Coke can mars your otherwise immaculate photographic composition. Would we let it taint our vision, or would we harness the prowess of tools like generative fill to refine it?  Consider if you took to Alaska for a 7-day vacation.  That one amazing image of the snowy mountain is marred with an unfavorable shadow, hiker, or uninteresting cloud.  Do we delete the file, or use available tools to turn it into a masterpiece?

I’m genuinely eager to know where you stand.

Further Reading:

  1. Wiki: Artificial intelligence art
  2. Wiki: The History of Photography
  3. Cornell Tech: AI vs. Artist: The Future of Creativity
  4. How This AI Image Won a Major Photography Competition
  5. CBS News: He submitted an AI image to a photography competition and won – then rejected the award
  6. AI IMAGE WINS TOP PRIZE IN PHOTOGRAPHY CONTEST…AGAIN
  7. AP: Photo giant Getty took a leading AI image-maker to court.
  8. AI-Generated Art Is Not Copyrightable, Judge Rules
  9. Wiki: Artificial intelligence and copyright
  10. Wiki: Monkey selfie copyright dispute
Joe Lippeatt
Follow me!
Please note, required FTC Legal Disclaimer: HoustonPhotowalks uses affiliate marketing and advertising to generate revenue for our budget and the organizers who run the group. This money is used to pay Meetup.com fees, website hosting fees, classroom fees, teaching fees, donations to museums and venues, provide bottles of water when possible, compensate organizers for their time, etc. When you click links, the HoustonPhotowalks organization may receive a fee when you purchase a product or service.