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An Air of Vengeance
On the invention of photography and generative AI
The following is the second part in an ongoing series on generative artificial intelligence and art. Part one can be found here.
In a little over a year, generative AI has created a small industry of prognosticators selling us futures bleak, gleaming, and all shades of dull. Every kind of outcome is on the market. On one extreme, AI will inflict extractionist blight, driving down wages and widening the gap between rich and poor. On the other, it will deliver a Jetsonian future, complete with weekly UBI checks. When it comes to culture, there are innumerable contradictory outcomes. Generative AI will destroy art, or it will help it. Generative AI will forever change the way we make clothes, comics, movies—unless it doesn’t. Students will cheat at art school; the prices of paintings will plummet; authors will be forced into penury. Or they won’t.
Multiple articles—published in art journals, Wired, just about everywhere—have compared the invention of generative AI to that of photography. The analogy is specifically hinged on the latter’s reconfiguring of the 19th century’s cultural landscape. The analogy is apt, generally. Both photography and generative AI allowed people who can’t draw and paint to make pictures that reproduced the visible world. Both are relatively quick and cheap to make. And both had rocky receptions. Like generative AI, early audiences feared and hated photography; it wasn’t worthy of the title of “art.” Charles Baudelaire is fairly representative on the issue, if extreme: “As the photographic industry was the refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies, this universal infatuation bore not only the mark of a blindness, an imbecility, but had also the air of a vengeance.”
The air of a vengeance? Against what? The aristocracy of taste, maybe. Talent, also. It is true that after the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, the production of images underwent a process of democratization. Before then, images were produced solely by artists or craftspeople. Portraits, landscapes, illustrations, murals, advertisements, signs, decorations, church scenes, every kind of image that circulated in a society was created by a specialist. After the daguerreotype, the menial duties of portraiture and postcards were absorbed by photographers. Later, with the eventual rise of amateur photography—a revolution within a revolution—artists and professional photographers forever lost their place as society’s premiere image-makers. The century progressed and images multiplied, first by the thousands, then millions. In his history of photography, Art and Photography, Aaron Scharf writes that by 1862, it was estimated that 105 million photographs were made in Great Britain alone. By the end of the century, photographs were cheap and plentiful. More devastatingly, anyone—even Muybridge’s horse—could make one.
But when considering specific genres of painting, the history appears less linear and more chaotic. Take, for example, portrait miniatures. The once popular and now lost subgenre is often given as a perfect case study for photography’s creative destruction. Miniature portraits—hand-painted and easily concealable in a brooch or jacket pocket—were given away for various occasions: diplomatic engagement, enlistment in war, the wooing of a lover. Miniatures were popular in Europe from the 16th century onward—until, it seems, the daguerreotype became the new norm. Scharf names and quotes several artists who switched from miniatures to photography as early as 1841, only two years after the daguerreotype. Some painters converted to different genres, while others became photographic colorists. Others invented hybrid genres by “finishing” their photographic portraits with watercolors and crayons.
There was a decline, and then, during 1890s, a half-century after photography’s invention, the genre enjoyed an inexplicable comeback. In Britain, the Royal Academy of Arts began exhibiting hundreds of miniatures, a trend that lasted for two decades. This may have been an early case of technological nostalgia: Scharf explains that photography was now the norm and miniatures were the novelty. W.&D. Downey, studio photographers to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, may have started the trend when they began copying photographic portraits to watercolors on ivory. Another source writes that amateur photography was on the rise, undercutting the professionals. Photography, always granted temporary status in the arts, had finally become too vulgar, perhaps. Whatever the reason, it might not have been the last revival: a British Pathé documentary on YouTube also speaks of a miniaturist revival in Britain—in 1956.
But why was there an initial decline? Was it only because photographers made cheaper portraits? Were the two aesthetically interchangeable, the daguerreotype and the miniature? Of course not. One was black and white, and for some time printed on plates. The other was colorful and hand painted. For photography to replace painting, aesthetic standards would have had to change—radically, in fact.
Walter Benjamin in “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century” wrote that photography was not only more lucrative than painting, it was also considered by its makers and clientele to be “aesthetically superior.” According to Benjamin, these photographers “belonged to the avant-garde, from which most of their clientele [also] came.” This is an exaggeration, at best. Benjamin seems to mean that early photographers deemed the photograph aesthetically superior to the miniature, but he offers no evidence. It is also circular in its reasoning. Photographers took photographs because they thought photographs were better than paintings. The same, according to Benjamin, was true of their clients. Again, this generalizes too much. After all, Baudelaire, whom Benjamin writes about in the same essay, sat for Nadar.
Photography scholar and curator Hans Rooseboom might be the field’s lone skeptic. Contrary to the usual history, the Dutch artists Rooseboom studied hardly suffered from the invention of photography, and they may have even benefited. Rooseboom’s study, “Myths and misconceptions: photography and painting in the nineteenth century,” is full of skepticism, revisionism, fresh thinking, and occasional obtuseness when it comes to the question of photography’s effect on the miniature. Rooseboom admits that the general lack of evidence on the subject makes it difficult area to study as “there are barely any hard figures at all on the number of portrait painters and their earnings.”
Rooseboom turns this to his advantage: since there is not a lot of data—anecdotal, economic, or otherwise—one really can’t be sure that photography ended the miniature all by itself. The figures that do exist show something counterintuitive: miniature portraiture was declining in the Netherlands before photography was invented. He writes:
There seems to be an idée fixe: the observation that photography adversely affected the arts is rarely explained. A critical review reveals that, if there is a decline in nineteenth-century art, it cannot possibly be blamed entirely on photography: any decline set in before photography was invented and became established.
The rest of the historical record is equally complex. While it is a received idea that painters ceded mimesis to photographers (one that Benjamin also repeats), the two mediums in fact began imitating one another. The 19th century saw a variety of “painterly” and “artistic” photographic landscapes, ambitious in their scale and purposefully aping well-known canvases. Paintings, likewise, begin arranging themselves like photographs, with cropped peripheral subjects and off-kilter compositions. Some painters even begin using photographs for reference. (Scharf, without evidence, suggests Ingres may have been using photographs in this way.)
Photography’s history is complex, nonlinear, and, to borrow a phrase from Benjamin, obscured in fog. The future is unknown, and to a surprising degree, so is the past—at least when speaking of photography. If generative AI and photography make a good analogical pair, it’s not because they both replaced painting or put artists out of work. It is because their effects on art are, at times, counterintuitive and unpredictable. Perhaps, like photography, generative AI will exist alongside other genres, feeding off them and contributing to them equally. The two have already begun imitating one another, for better or worse. Generative AI may even contribute to the revival of media considered long dead or endangered, which is the topic of the next installment in this series.
Generative AI does share one major attribute with photography: anyone can use it. This puts AI in line with the democratization of image production mentioned above. Perversely, the technology can make everyone an artist, as glib as that might sound. With generative AI, the monopoly artists once had on image making has further eroded, whether artists like it or not. Artists can bargain—generative AI is not truly imaginative, great artists are more creative than AI, a computer cannot be an artist—but the fact remains that people with no artistic training can now make creative imagery.
For those of us who spend our lives making pictures, it is vertiginous to see our skills mimicked in this way. Contrary to what Silicon Valley says, the development was not inevitable. Generative AI is aimed at the culture industry, very deliberately. It is an attempt to usurp artistic skill, income, and—yes—talent. There are times when Baudelaire seems right, but about a very different technology. Generative AI appears driven by a certain resentment, shaded, as Baudelaire wrote, with an air of vengeance.