A Photographer Embraces the Alien Logic of A.I.

The Pope is wearing Balenciaga. Donald Trump is resisting arrest. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of “Tron”? Looks amazing. But, of course, none of these things are real. As A.I. technology advances at a queasy speed, all manner of artificially generated images are flooding the Internet, adding sludge to an already super-saturated visual soup. They fool credulous social-media users and threaten to put people out of work. An A.I.-generated image recently won a prize at the Sony World Photography Awards (the author rejected it); another won an award at the Colorado State Fair. Such incidents have prompted a lot of hand-wringing among artists and critics. Will computer-generated art mean the obsolescence of the artist?

“Apple Layout,” 2023.

Many working artists—3-D modellers, graphic designers, illustrators—have good reason to fear that much of what they do day to day could soon be accomplished by machines. But it’s also true that all “art” made by A.I. is derivative—the programs generate imagery by drawing upon enormous “datasets” of already extant images—and, perhaps as a result, little of it so far rises to the level of audaciously original. The film director Bennett Miller, who spent five years making a documentary about A.I., recently exhibited a collection of nineteenth-century-style A.I. images at Gagosian. A girl in one portrait looks like a mutant version of a Julia Margaret Cameron subject. Another image could be an Edward S. Curtis or a Carleton Watkins. This is neat, I guess, but I can’t get too excited by the idea of using new tech to make fake versions of old things.

The artist Charlie Engman is one of the few photographers who have leaned into the alien logic of the new machine age and found a way to make something that feels new. Previously known for his theatrical, provocative photographs of his mother, Engman has in the past year turned his attention to producing work with the A.I. image-generation software Midjourney. To my surprise, when I reached out to Engman recently, at his Brooklyn studio, he described himself as a “technophobe.” A native of the Chicago suburbs, he studied Japanese and Korean at Oxford University and became interested in photography after stumbling on a book by the Japanese artist Rinko Kawauchi, who makes lyrical pictures of nature and domestic life. In a sense, his foray into A.I. started with a similar process of accidental discovery. On the recommendation of a friend, he started toying around with Midjourney. “For the first while, it was just novel to me—Wow, you can make these funny pictures. But it wasn’t good,” he recalled. “And then, one time, I randomly did make something that I was, like, This is maybe cooler than anything I’ve ever made. How did that happen?”

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