Paula Gortázar speaks with Gregory Eddi Jones about his recent project 49/23, a digital collage series that blends AI-generated images over pages from 1949 issues of Popular Photography Magazine, building a conceptual bridge between photography’s past and future while exploring the disruptions posed by AI toward photographic tradition.
Gregory Eddi Jones (b. 1986, Syracuse, NY) is a post-photographic artist, writer, and publisher based between Philadelphia and New York. Jones’ work is grounded in methods of appropriation and the re-authorship of existing photographic, literary, and aesthetic traditions. His practice often engages with visual criticism, dark humor, cultural commentary, and building conversant bridges between past and present cultural, political, and technological conditions. He has exhibited his work internationally and throughout the United States, and his self-published books are held in numerous institutional photobook collections, including libraries at Museum of Modern Art, The Met and The Brooklyn Museum of Art among others.
Paula Gortázar: Thanks for giving us the opportunity to conduct this interview Gregory. First of all, I would like to ask you about the title of the project, 49/23. You mention you had used various issues of Popular Photography Magazine published in 1949. I assume your title makes reference to this date, with the second number pointing at the production year of the project, 2023. Can I ask what was special about 1949 for you to look at those specific issues?
Gregory Eddi Jones: I like to collect vintage photography magazines, partly because I’m very fond of old camera ads, but also because having them around provides really firm anchoring for my understanding of the medium and its trajectories. Several years ago, I was digging through shelves at a library used book sale and found a bound volume of every issue of Popular Photography Magazine from 1949. I assume the library itself had created it to preserve them together. So, I bought it and brought it home, as I often do with photographic material that I think could have some place in future projects.
What made me decide to use these issues, as opposed to ones from any other historical period, (I was also considering using issues of Kodakery and British Journal of Photography from 1923) was the thought that there are still photographers alive today who would have read these specific issues as teenagers in 1949, and they are most likely in their 90s now. To me, it felt important for the material to exist within living memory, even (or especially) just barely. It’s the thought that soon these magazines will only be remembered via the archive, that memory of that era will soon disappear. And I felt that this idea would help punctuate the significant technological evolutions that can occur in a single lifetime.
AI image making is of course about much more than photography. These image generators are becoming like superhighways of visual culture, a merging of many different visual “roads” or categories of pictures that are indexed by these machines into a single broad stream of output. I can imagine in 5 years that the bulk of visual culture will be channeled through AI tools.
PG: This project presents some of the key questions around the future of the photographic medium. It is clear that since its invention, photography has been part of a continuous technological evolution. From the daguerreotype to film cameras and digital imaging, photographers are constantly adapting their production methods in line with technological developments, whilst their public tends to quickly embrace such changes with a mix of skepticism, curiosity and fascination. Your project seems to suggest that generative-AI systems are only another step in the evolution of the medium. Do you think the emergence of AI generative software is comparable to previous advancements, such as the emergence of digital photography in the late 1990s, for example?
GEJ: AI image making is of course about much more than photography. These image generators are becoming like superhighways of visual culture, a merging of many different visual “roads” or categories of pictures that are indexed by these machines into a single broad stream of output. I can imagine in 5 years that the bulk of visual culture will be channeled through AI tools. Pictures, movies, music, design, architecture, video games…It makes me think of a future day when most images indexed by AI tools will themselves have been produced by AI.
For photography specifically, the history of the medium is a history of technology. The word “photography” to me isn’t so much a process, but a technological condition. Not a specific tool or product, but an ever-evolving premise of machine-aided visual production. The medium has always, and successfully, striven to find easier, cheaper, and faster methods of making images. On the most fundamental level, efficiency is what we have historically asked photography to do, more than anything else like truth-telling, record keeping, or visual literature. We first ask that it be as easy as possible.
I think it will take some time to see all the medium’s previous use cases that can effectively be replaced by AI. There’s the idea of technological Darwinism, and how these new tools can make older photographic techniques obsolete. But we’re already seeing cases where AI images are given a space that photographs would traditionally be used to hold.
The machine is re-synthesizing the data of old photographs to make new pictures. AI images contain the DNA of photographs, and to me there is a clear lineage and relationship not dissimilar from a parent’s relationship to its child.
Is it ok to call an AI-generated image a photograph? Most photographers I know argue firmly against this. But I think they should and will exist in photographic conversations. The machine is re-synthesizing the data of old photographs to make new pictures. AI images contain the DNA of photographs, and to me there is a clear lineage and relationship not dissimilar from a parent’s relationship to its child.
PG: One of the key issues around the use of generative-AI systems is the appropriation of third-party imagery for the creation of new work. The strategy of appropriation, however, is by no means new. IP laws have been regulating the use of third party content for decades now, whilst the art world has generally welcomed such practices and celebrated innovative approaches to appropriation strategies. But the way generative-AI systems make use of third-party content is so vast that it will probably take a long time to regulate a fair use of the billions of items contained in their image datasets. Considering that most of the photographs in those datasets are available thanks to a widespread exploitation of digital labour, do you think it is ethical for AI companies to launch their generative systems, open source, at their current development stage?
GEJ: This is a very large set of issues to unpack. Personally, I don’t mind or care if AI is indexing my own work. It’s fascinating to me to think about AI image systems as machines that synthesize a global, collective visual consciousness. When I step back to think about it, it’s a remarkable technological achievement. It’s like thinking about the laws of the universe vs laws of humanity. Which should take precedence? Of course, much of my practice is rooted in appropriation, so my perspectives likely differ significantly from more traditional photographers who place more value on the idea of originality. I also think that these new tools can change what we consider to be original in the first place.
Perhaps it’s also the fatalist in me who doesn’t think my own opinion doesn’t matter on what is or isn’t ethical when it comes to this. There’s the thought that AI isn’t doing anything that isn’t mirroring a normal human process. All my work contains some DNA of other artist’s work, this is how conversation works to begin with. We mentally index the input of others, it in turn influences the output we create. Maybe this is too fatalistic to ask, but should each of the words we’re using now come with a footnote to acknowledge their origins, how they evolved and how their meanings have changed? Or do we simply take them as a given set of tools for us to continue our conversation? To me pictures are no different, and it’s the financial status of pictures that is at question: conflicts of economic vs epistemological value.
PG: The AI-generated images in the project are superposed on top of pages from Popular Photography Magazine. In most cases, the headlines are clearly redable. Is there any concrete relation between the writing present in those headlines and the language prompted to generate your AI images?
GEJ: Yes, but not exclusively. Many of the prompts I used to generate the images were based on the existing texts on the pages, sometimes prominent texts, other times lines and passages in the regular copy. I liked the idea of offering the source material itself a degree of authorship, as if the past is writing the future, in a manner of speaking. Of course, the existing photographs on the pages inspired ideas as well. But this wasn’t a singular methodology, as some of the AI images I made independently, and simply looked for the right page layout structure that would suit the image. I’ve always been attracted to image/text interplay, and like the idea of the image as not solely a picture, but a codex of information. It’s a kind of practice that goes beyond crafting an image and deals in integrating more complicated parcels of information. At the very least, it was a fun game to play.
PG: Interestingly, the project finishes with a description of the work that appears to have been provided by Chat GPT. Considering that the project was produced in 2023, I am very curious to know how the generative algorithm could have found enough information on the net to produce this. Could you please tell us more about this process?
GEJ: Oh yes, you’re referring to this essay that accompanied the NFT collection. It was a fun experiment to test Chat GPT’s interpretive capabilities. I actually wrote a two paragraph synopsis of the project and fed it into the program while asking it to write an essay about the project. So it wasn’t a process where the machine was referencing a pre-programmed index. The results were interesting: The structure of the piece reads like a high school essay, but I was really surprised by the interesting title that the AI created, and there are a couple lines in the text that actually read as quite reflective and insightful. What this means, I don’t know. But given the nature of the project it felt all too appropriate to have an AI write-up to accompany the work. I’m sure that other artists will find more clever ways to use AI text tools, but this is the interesting thing at the moment; that these tools are still so new we are only barely tapping into their capabilities.
PG: It is clear that as a visual artist you are rapidly embracing emerging technologies. In 2021 you produced Promise Land; a VR/Interactive piece that was launched for web/mobile tech. There is no doubt that the frameworks for the production and distribution of still images are shifting at a fascinating speed, with users now offered a multi-sensorial experience that distances significantly from traditional forms of visual display. What do you think is the value of the ‘photographic frame’ in this evolving technological paradigm? Does the still image have anything new to offer when experienced within virtual space?
GEJ: These are two great questions. The virtual exhibition I made for Promise Land came on a whim after I discovered the digital exhibition platform New Art City and just started tinkering. I really liked the idea of finding an alternative way to exhibit/publish the work without all the restrictions that come with producing physical objects and experiences. In fact, the virtual exhibition became the model of the physical exhibition of Promise Land at Images Vevey last fall.
I think we’re still early in looking at the capabilities of virtual exhibition platforms. I haven’t seen a lot of photographers using these tools yet as a means to publish work, and adoption rates for virtual tools (or philosophies for that matter) are still quite low. I think many artists look at virtual platforms as a kind of immaterial gimmick, but opinions can change very quickly. I think more integrated digital publishing mechanisms could become an entirely new and accepted field of play in the coming years.
The screen has changed the way we see and look. Computing interfaces continue to evolve, and visual culture will evolve along with it. Photography in the age of the laptop is an interesting concept to me, and I think that photography in the age of the headset is even more so, as speculative as it may be at the moment.
On the front lines are artists who are positioning photography in relation to emergent technologies. If enough of them remain dedicated, communities will form, institutions will take note of those communities, and then amplification of new ideas can occur and new paradigms become normalized.
On the front lines are artists who are positioning photography in relation to emergent technologies. If enough of them remain dedicated, communities will form, institutions will take note of those communities, and then amplification of new ideas can occur and new paradigms become normalized. I also think that there can be a significant difference between making a photograph and placing it in virtual space, and making a photograph for the purpose of it being seen in virtual space. Images that feel native to virtual environments have the capacity to develop new visual cultures in a way that other photographs can’t. Old black and white photographs in an interactive virtual environment, for example, feel like they don’t belong, like they are too far from home. But images born of these environments can be very different. They can be made to be seen in the context of the interface and feel native to the technology network.
If the prophecies of a headset wearing, metaverse occupying future of humanity come true, there will of course be artists there to examine and reflect on these new contexts. I should hope that photographers would be there as well. The frame in the 21st century is one that is plugged in, networked, and interactive. It’s a paradigm in its infancy compared with the traditional, physical frames that have accompanied physical art for centuries. Yet, within the entire spectrum of photographic media, only a small subset of photographers are interested in occupying the fringes of new technologies. In fact, given the skills needed to produce visual art to reflect a virtually-mediated world, it could very well be that the future of photographs is not created by photographers at all.