Artificial intelligence is all over the news. When ChatGPT, OpenAI’s new chatbot, launched last month, it finally seemed to live up to the hype that genetic AI has promised for years—an easy-to-use machine intelligence for the general public.
Wild predictions soon followed: The death of search engines, the end of homework, the hollowing out of creative professions.
And, for the first time, such predictions did not seem abstract. When an AI bot like ChatGPT can write a coherent story or essay in seconds, and visual apps like Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, and DALL-E 2 produce similarly comprehensible images, you have to wonder if human creativity – slow and often uncertain – may be unnecessary.
We’ve been here before.
In 1839 a French painter named Louis Daguerre unveiled an invention at the Académie des Sciences and Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris that astonished their members—a process of capturing and fixing a photographic image.
The excitement over his invention, the daguerreotype, was immediate and off the charts. And so were the predictions of how it could change the world.
After seeing his first daguerreotype, the artist Paul Delaroche exclaimed: “From today, painting is dead!” On one level, he was right. Delaroche’s type of painting, the highly realistic and painstaking portraits, would be largely replaced by photographs. But other artists saw potential in the new technology and quickly incorporated it into their creative process.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec photographed his models to continue painting when they were no longer sitting in front of him. Edgar Degas described the photographs as “images of a magical instant”. He enjoyed the way a photograph could freeze time and show aspects of movement never seen before.
Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro began to dramatize the color, light and movement of a scene, using thick oil pigments and broad strokes that made their canvases look like sculpture. Several decades later, René Magritte and Salvador Dali returned to a more realistic style in their paintings, but with images that a camera could never capture – the human dream state.
In America, a young painter named Mathew Brady learned of Daguerre’s invention and decided to give up painting altogether. Brady opened a photographic studio in New York in 1844 and quickly established himself as a master of this new art, taking portraits of the most famous public figures of his day.
But it was his decision in 1861 to abandon the studio and take his equipment to the battlefields of the Civil War that established Brady’s place in history as the founder of an entirely different profession, photojournalism.
For the first time, audiences at home saw the reality of war—dead men strewn in the street, trees stripped of their leaves and branches by a hail of bullets, amputations taking place in squalid hospitals.
The war had been recorded by painters for hundreds of years. But few saw a battle with their own eyes. If they did, a sketch and the memory of the event was all they had to guide them. Photography allowed the documentation of horrific incidents. A soldier’s recurring nightmare could now become ours.
By the last years of the 19th century photographic techniques had advanced to the point where they were revealing truths about nature that artists had missed for thousands of years. How did a horse gallop? Renderings before Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic studies in 1878 show it one way. Since then we know it and see it differently.
In 1893 Thomas Edison announced the Kinetoscope, a machine for projecting moving images. Just two years later in Paris, the Lumière brothers invented a film projection machine, called the Cinématographe. The picture now had movement and an excited audience.
In this day and age, the scope of photography has only increased – from Hollywood feature films on our phones to immersive virtual landscapes on our VR headsets.
When people first saw photographic images, soon after the invention of photography, they often marveled at its strangeness—the extreme tonal range and sharpness, the unusual perspectives, the arbitrary framing, the capture of the immediate and the casual.
But then, with time and familiarity, they began to see the world as a camera does. It is difficult for us to imagine this mental change. Everyone alive today has always known photography. We can’t go back.
Maybe this is our future too. What feels shocking and overwhelming now may soon be something we can’t imagine living without. Photography gave us new eyes. Who knows what creative tools AI will offer?