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Photograph or... 'promptograph?' Artist questions implications of AI generated images


Sometimes, life imitates art. Other times, art imitates life, as is the case of a seemingly vintage portrait of two women which German artist Boris Eldagsen submitted to this year's Sony World Photography Awards.

BORIS ELDAGSEN: The image looks like a 1940s vintage wet plate photo. You have a younger, beautiful woman looking directly into a camera. Behind her right shoulder, kind of hiding, you have an older woman. From the right side of the frame, there is a third hand entering the scene, and you don't know to whom that hand belongs.

DETROW: The image, however, is not antique at all. It was generated using AI. The judges from the World Photography Organization say they were aware of this and still declared Eldagsen the winner in an experimental photography category. But Eldagsen rejected the award in protest, saying he wanted to spark a conversation about the implications of AI in art and media. He joins me now from Berlin to explain more. Welcome to the show.

ELDAGSEN: Hey. Hi. Hi from Berlin.

DETROW: So this isn't a photograph. It looks like a photograph.


DETROW: You are seeing more and more of these all over, whether it's art, whether it's on social media, whether it's in advertising campaigns. What should we call something like this? What do you think it should be called?

ELDAGSEN: I would call it promptography.

DETROW: A promptograph, you said?

ELDAGSEN: Yes. It's not my term. It was suggested by a Peruvian photographer. It has already existed in the community, and I think it's a wonderful term because it relates back to the way of production - we use prompts. And like photography is related to light, promptographs can look like a photograph, but it can also look like a drawing. It can look like a painting - anything else.

DETROW: The AI photograph that got so much worldwide attention on social media of Pope Francis wearing a luxurious puffy jacket with a big drip-looking crucifix. Would you call that a promptograph?

ELDAGSEN: Yes. Yes, it's done in 20 seconds - easy.

DETROW: What do you think the difference is between, as you call it, a promptograph and the many other ways that art and photographs are being digitally manipulated right now?

ELDAGSEN: It's the text prompt.


ELDAGSEN: You start from your imagination, and you describe what you would like to have. And you can make such a text prompt quite complicated. You can put up to 11 elements in that text prompt. And my knowledge as a photographer, my knowledge as an artist makes it different in my prompting. So for the first time in technology advancement, an older generation is better off because I know much more than a 15-year-old. A 15-year-old would generate a superhero. So that is something that I like about it - that it is kind of like co-creation.

DETROW: Yeah. This technology is getting exponentially better every week at this point, it seems like.


DETROW: That raises a lot of concerns. I mean, we're journalists here at NPR. We have deep concerns about misinformation on many fronts. This raises a lot of really troublesome questions. Do you have any idea how to start sorting through them?

ELDAGSEN: Some (laughter). As an artist, I love AI. As a citizen of a democratic country, I'm shocked about the possibilities of disinformation it gives. Anyone that can just type a couple of words can create a photorealistic image of the Pope in Balenciaga. You can't trust an image anymore. We need some kind of labeling - some kind of fact-checking where you see that an image has gone through certain instances - has been getting proof by photo editors. Only then we can know it's an authentic picture - shows something that has happened.

DETROW: These are very serious questions that need to be sorted out and will take time to sort out, and I do not think you and I can sort it out in this radio segment. So let me ask one more question, though, because you mentioned that, as an artist, you do love how much this technology has advanced. What is your favorite thing about working with AI, strictly speaking as an artist, creating these images?

ELDAGSEN: It's absolute freedom. I have no restrictions - budget-wise, location, material, props, models, whatever. I can imagine what I would like to have, and I can create it. I think that's wonderful. It's like in the Old Testament. You are in kind of God mode. You say, I want to have light, I want to have water, and you get it.

DETROW: That was Berlin-based artist Boris Eldagsen. Thank you so much for being with us.

ELDAGSEN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.