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abstraction, AI, black + white, critical writing, digital image, water

seascapes and generative AI image making

May 21, 2024

It started when the Microsoft backed OpenAI went public in late 2022 with ChatGPT with its new technology of summarization. These new technologies, which process human generated information, are taking the form of being the newest, hottest thing with stock market speculation and investor stampede for AI startups. The hype cycle is in full swing, expectations are bubbling over into euphoria about the potential transformations.  Silicon Valley’s motto is ‘move fast and break things’.

Rolleiflex TLR

This Large Language Model (LLM) is a technology that makes it cheap and easy to summarize information. They generate general purpose text for chatbots, and perform language processing tasks such as classifying concepts, analysing data and translating text. Usable maps and summaries of big inchoate bodies of information can be incredibly helpful. So are the emerging transformations in human-machine interaction with respect to text, text to images and text to video. Apple, though, appears to have gone missing as it currently lacks a publicly available generative AI product.

AI-generated images are increasingly everywhere in contemporary visual culture with lots of whispers, positive vibes on the street and wild swings in the share prices of infrastructure and software vendors as investors attempt to read the tea leaves of the generative AI market. There is  money in image-generating models. It’s akin to a gold rush.

Sony A7R111
Encounter Bay, 2023

If these cultural technologies are to have long term value, then they require reasonably high quality knowledge to keep on working. AI models are thus built on the backs of out-sourced human labor: people toiling away, providing mountains of training examples for AI systems that corporations can use to make billions of dollars. By themselves the AI do not provide a solution to the garbage-in, garbage-out problem, from the ever increasing disinformation, hallucination and fakery on the internet. So how do they get the right data with all this tainted data? How is that data protected in the applications built on top of the AI platforms? How will they address safeguards around facial recognition? Are safety culture and processes taking a backseat to shiny products?

The tectonic cultural plates are indeed shifting — eg., using Claude on the iPhone indicates that the modern chatbots allow users to now interact with computers through natural conversation–and the newly arrived flirtatious and coquettish GPT-40 that accepts visual, audio, and text input, and generate output in any of those modes from a user’s prompt or request. Creating images through innovative AI generators, such as OpenAI’s art generator DALL-E 3, or Midjourney and Stable Diffusion has become a new form of image production.

5x4 Linhof Technika IV
Encounter Bay seascape

This is based on a text prompt that then turns it into a matching image — it assembles a new images from a database of already existing ones. So the dataset is just a big scrape of the Internet, and  the current legal situation about intellectual property is incredibly murky, given that the AI companies  are using copyrighted images to train their algorithms without asking for consent or offering compensation. 

By the looks of it, AI generated images will have a big immediate impact on stock photography to the extent of replacing Shutterstock-type photography. Adobe is saying in relation to its Firefly AI generator to ‘skip the photoshoot‘, rather than enhancing the photoshoot. The political economy here is simple: Adobe gets the money as Firefly will be used to benefit their makers at the expense of others. At the moment I see the array of new generative “AI” tools to enable me to modify my photographic images as being offered solutions to problems in post-processing that I don’t have.

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abstraction, critical writing, film, water

Encounter Bay seascapes

April 14, 2023

I have been looking at some recent scans of the seascapes that I made during 2022 with my vintage RolleiflexF TLR. This is a 60 year old camera and so it is no surprise that the elements of its Planar 75m lens that were joined with balsam glue have recently separated. Apparently the issue of lens separation is often associated with the camera having been exposed to high heat situations during its life.  It can be repaired through baking the lens to de-glue the elements, but there is a risk of the elements cracking from the baking process. I decided to go ahead with the repair.

The 2022 seascape images that I made with this Rolleiflex TLR looked quite different to what I’d expected. From the traditional perspective of the quality of the image that is produced by a digital camera you could say that these are degraded images and so failures. That is how I saw them when I’d scanned the negatives and then compared them in Lightroom to the digital images made at the same time. I had initially thought that the degraded images resulted from the lens being salt damaged like the Leica M4-P due to by a rogue wave sweeping over me — but it was lens separation not a salt ladened camera.

Rolleiflex TLR
seascape, Encounter Bay, #1

I put the scans to one side and forgot about them. Some time later I went back and re-looked at Gustave Le Gray’s mid-19th century coastal photography of Normandy and the western coast of the Mediterranean.   I concentrated on his seascapes, that were made using the wet-collodion process and from different negatives (one for the sea and another one for the sky) being combined to produce an image that showed both sky and sea in one unified, double-structured picture. He produced an album of sepia brown toned seascapes of albumen prints called Vistas del Mar. These are images from the prehistory of an instantaneous photography, or pictorial instantaneity, which emerged after 1878.

I found these images created by the combination of two different negatives taken at different moments with different exposure times stunning. They also raised the issues of how does photography represent time? How does photography figure the temporal nature of the medium? What kind of philosophy of time, if any, can be found in photography?

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abstraction, critical writing, large format

on abstraction

February 3, 2023

I want to pick up on an earlier post on photography and abstraction in relation to the practice of large format photography in order to begin to dig into what we mean by abstraction. There are multiple reasons for this. Firstly, the word abstract is vague, imprecise, and ambiguous, and secondly there has been little written about abstraction despite its centrality to the visual arts in the 20th century. Thirdly, there is even less written on abstraction in photography.

These reasons are underpinned by the habitual disdain for theoretical abstractions, which once informed empiricism, the philosophy with which the English-speaking world is most associated. This restricts abstraction to the mind wherein is identified as an abstract or general idea formed from sense data or sensory impressions of classes of objects or patterns in nature–ie, the general idea of rocks as opposed to these particular rocks. This post, then begins to explore what is conceptually meant by abstraction.

rock abstraction #1

Abstraction in the visual arts in Australia is traditionally tied to both the modernist paintings in The Field Exhibition in the late 1960s, and to the modernist understanding of abstraction of Clement Greenberg’s conception of abstract visual art as the pinnacle of the medium of painting, due to it having succeeded (according to Greenberg) in stripping away other media.  The art historical conception that is found in exhibition catalogues and art history books interprets  abstraction as the absence of figuration or depiction of everyday objects. The consequence is that Patrick McCaughey, an Australian modernist follower of Greenberg, held that photographers should forget abstraction because it is not suited to the medium of photography. That was Greenberg’s position as well: the medium of photography in its essence was an art of documenting the world as opposed to documentary being a subdivision of photography.

If we are to explore abstraction in photography we need to step away from the habits and conventions of this modernist cultural frame in the sense of shifting our patterns of thought beyond familiar aesthetic norms so we can open up abstraction more broadly to new tendencies to stasis or change, eruptions and becomings. We need to look at abstraction conceptually, and not just in terms of what it has been as outlined in Lyle Rexer’s The Edge of Vision.

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abstraction, exhibitions, landscape, rocks

Photography, Landscape, Place

September 24, 2021

I have a few photos in this multimedia group Rock, Stone, Earth exhibition of rocks from the northern Flinders Ranges to the southern Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia. The exhibition is curated by Janine Baker and Stephen Johnson, it is at the Onkaparinga Art Centre in Port Noarlunga, and it is being opened by Vic Waclawik on Sunday 26th September.

Featured artists are: Quentin Gore, Stephen Skillitzi, the late Władysław Dutkiewicz, John Richardson, Adam Dutkiewicz, Janette Humble, Deborah Odell, Gary Sauer-Thompson, Tina Moore, Stephen Johnson and Janine Baker.

My photos of  rocks include those large format ones made from the daily poodlewalks  in  the area between Petrel Cove and Kings Headon the southern Fleurieu Peninsula; secondly,  those from the Flinders Ranges made whilst I was on  camel treks in South Australia (one  to Mt Hopeless in 2018 and one from Blinman to Lake Frome in 2021); and thirdly, those made on walks in the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park in 2021.

The rocks in the northern Flinders Ranges are very old — some dating back to before the lower Cambrian period with its explosion of life after the great glaciation of the planet. The Flinders Ranges contain an exceptional and unique geological heritage. This geological heritage with its Ediacaran fossils is the basis for the nomination of the Flinders Ranges for world heritage listing.

rock face, Waitpinga, South Australia

This heritage is based on a depositional system known as the Adelaide Rift Complex or Adelaide Superbasin, which includes the Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island. The latter experienced a mountain building period around 500 million years ago that caused a substantial folding, buckling and faulting of the strata.

The rocks I photographed can be contextualized and linked by the geology of the Adelaide Superbasin in South Australia. The sedimentary rocks of the basin were deposited in a depression during the breakup of the supercontinent of Rodinia. The nature of the rocks suggest they were deposited in a mostly marine environment — a shallow sea — approximately 870 to 500 million years ago.

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abstraction, critical writing, roadtrip

McCaughey on abstract photography

April 13, 2021

I came across some interesting remarks made by Patrick McCaughey in the 1970s about the relationship between photography and abstraction in Mellissa Miles’ text The Language of Light and Dark: Light and Place in Australian Photography. This was in an introduction to Aspects of Australian Photography (ed. Graham Howe, 1974) that McCaughey, a formalist art critic and art historian, wrote. His concern as a formal modernist was that photography, of it wanted to be a serious art, should work with the essential properties of photography as a medium rather than aspire to produce abstractions like painting.

McCaughey said that photographers should stop aspiring to be artists and instead embrace the essential properties of their medium: its ubiquity, accessibility and reproducibility. The more the photographer accepts his (sic) role as a photographer and the less concerned he (sic) is to prove himself as an artist, accepting the habits of artist, exhibiting as an artist and seeking a role and status akin painters sculptors, the better off photography is. Photographers should forget abstraction because it is not suited to the medium. Photography is always photography of something.

This was Greenberg’s position: photography’s essential properties were delimited according to the medium’s supposedly direct relationship to the external visual world and that what the medium is becomes defined via what it is not. The determination of any given medium is partly through negation.

sandstone abstract, Otways

However McCaughey’s modernist purity position is one that says what counts as a medium is a given with determinable criteria thereby  allowing him to identify a medium or judge its value in advance. Consequently, it dismisses abstraction in photography by definition, in spite of there being a tradition of abstract photography and that there is an expanding field in any medium.

An expanding field  in photography in the 1970s opens up the possibility of a whole range of new practices can each count as a photographic medium. It would also highlight different photographic practices moving away from traditional documentary and formalist modernism with the paradigm shift in the art world away from modernism.

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