RIP Photography, 1839-2023.
After a solid run of nearly two whole centuries and countless brushes with death at the hands of new technologies over the years, photography has finally succumbed to injuries suffered with the emergence of AI-driven apps like Midjourney, and has been officially laid to rest.
No services will be held.
All major camera manufacturers have responded to the news by shuttering their operations, effective immediately, in the anticipation that cameras will simply not be needed anymore.
Ok, I’ve had my bit of fun. All jokes aside, though, I’m writing this opinion piece specifically because for the last six months or so, I can’t seem to get away from the incessant deluge of either panicked or gleeful declarations (depending on who is doing the declaring) that AI image generators have already all but rendered the need for photography obsolete.
Well, allow me to go on record with my own pronouncement: hogwash. AI image generation is not a threat to photography. Not today, not tomorrow, not in the next decade. I’ll even go so far as to say that AI image generation will never pose any kind of real threat to photography. Ever. I’ll even stake my reputation on it.
“But Colin,” you might say, “look at how far the technology has already come in just this short amount of time. Surely, you understand that this is just the beginning and that AI will very quickly be able to perfectly render any kind of image and be indistinguishable from an actual photograph. What then? Why would we need actual photography anymore?”
My answer to that depends on the context, as well as the timeframe we’re talking about, but my thoughts go generally like this:
As of now, AI image generators simply are not capable of fully duplicating the aesthetics of actual photography. And no, it’s not even close. AI-generated images are illustrations, and they look like illustrations, even the ones sourced from actual photos. And yes, I’ve seen all the dreamy dramatic landscapes and cityscapes and the headshots of people who don’t exist. It really doesn’t take much to see that the images are not photos. The scenes are always a little too perfect. There’s always a glaring detail in the portrait that gives it away as an AI illustration. Seriously, I have not seen a single AI image that was not obvious. And I’ve seen enough.
But what about a little further out, when AI is capable of rendering images indistinguishable from actual photos? If anyone can just enter a prompt on their computer and within seconds have the photo they’re looking for, why would they hire a photographer? After all, photographers are expensive, people can be difficult to work with, and there is always the chance that a photographer won’t get it right.
Ok, let’s imagine a future where AI can make any kind of art, including convincingly realistic photographs. Presuming that, in this imagined future where computer algorithms are capable of fulfilling all of our artistic needs, the idea that people will have no interest in actual photography completely ignores one of the most fundamental purposes art, and by extension, photography, serves in our lives. Photography is a means to record and relate the human experience in an authentic way and through authentic human expression. AI cannot do that and will never be capable of doing that. Because AI will never be human. And before you say that AI is just doing what the person inputting the prompt tells it to do, and that human expression is still driving AI creativity, consider that once the prompt has been entered, what comes out is entirely outside of the control of the person who entered the prompt.
Human expression is as much about the process of creation as it is the creation itself. Artists spend their entire lives developing and refining artistic processes to bring their vision to life, and the art that comes out of those processes cannot be divorced from them. Process is part of the language of art, and as such, is intrinsic to the value of art, and is why art speaks to us in the ways it does. To the extent that you remove human control from the process of art-making, you remove the actual humanity from the art itself. And AI art, by its very nature and purpose, removes most of the human control part of the process.
More than that, though, people just plain enjoy making photographs. Much like the invention of photography didn’t replace painting (even though there were plenty of people claiming it would), AI cannot and will not replace photography because it is not the same thing. AI art is closer to illustration than anything else, and so, it can be used in conjunction with photography, but it can’t replace it. Here’s a short list of other forms of art AI will not be replacing anytime soon: painting, drawing, sculpture, graphic design. Why? Because people actually enjoy doing those things and sharing their creations, and other people enjoy experiencing them. Of course, AI art creation is here to stay and has already become a part of many people’s artistic toolboxes, but in no way whatsoever will AI be replacing the other tools. And this includes photography.
As for context, one of the bigger and more consistent claims that I’ve heard is that AI is going to make any kind of commercial artists obsolete, including commercial, product and advertising photographers. I will concede one thing here. I do think AI will be used to replace the lowest level of commercial photography and that some lower-end companies will try to completely replace their advertising images with AI art. But, in the U.S. where I work at least, those jobs are already the worst in the industry and have been since basically the beginning. Nobody wants them, and these days, that kind of work tends to farmed out to interns, amateurs, and other unskilled people, if it’s even done here.
But, to the idea that AI is going to be used to get rid of even relatively high-end commercial photography? Not a chance. I talk with art directors, creative directors, producers, and art buyers on a regular basis, and none of them are talking about replacing photographers with so-called “prompt engineers.” Nobody is even entertaining the idea, because, as I said already, they enjoy the process of making art and know its value. And yes, a lot of artistic expression goes into the advertising we all so desperately try to ignore. After all, where do you think all the art majors end up? Working on big ad campaigns, including the photoshoots is fun. Yes, it is also work for those of us who make our living doing them, but we chose that work because we love it. And we’re not about to give that up to AI.
So no, AI is not going to replace photographers. Ever. Not advertising photographers, not landscape photographers, not portrait photographers or event photographers, and certainly not photojournalists and documentary photographers. More than that, though, AI has no chance of replacing the enjoyment that people get from simply making art with photography or capturing memories and preserving life’s special moments. Those are things that belong to the camera and the camera alone. And if you need any more convincing, go ask the R&D folks at any of the major camera manufacturers. I guarantee they’re not at all worried about their jobs.