Artificial intelligence is all over the news. When ChatGPT, OpenAI’s new chatbot, was released last month it seemed, finally, to match the hype that generative A.I. has been promising 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 didn’t seem abstract. When an A.I. bot like ChatGPT can write a coherent story or essay in seconds, and visual applications like Midjourney, Stable Diffusion and DALL-E 2, produce similarly comprehensible images you have to wonder if human creativity—slow and often uncertain—might be superfluous.
We’ve been here before.
In 1839 a French painter named Louis Daguerre revealed an invention to the Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris that stunned their members—a process for taking and fixing a photographic image.
The enthusiasm for his invention, the daguerreotype, was immediate and off the charts. And so were predictions for how it might change the world.
After seeing his first daguerreotype, the artist Paul Delaroche exclaimed, “From today, painting is dead!” On one level, he was right. The kind of painting practiced by Delaroche, ultra-realistic and painstakingly rendered portraits, would largely be 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 so he could continue painting when they were no longer sitting in front of him. Edgar Degas described photographs as “images of magical instantaneity.” He reveled in the way a photograph could freeze time and show aspects of motion that had never been seen before.
Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro began dramatizing the color, light and movement of a scene, using thick oil pigments and broad brush strokes that made their canvases look like sculpture. Several decades later, René Magritte and Salvador Dalí returned to a more realist 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 about Daguerre’s invention and decided to abandon painting altogether. Brady opened a photography studio in New York City in 1844 and quickly established himself as a master of this new art, taking portraits of the most famous public figures of his time.
But it was his decision in 1861 to abandon the studio and take his equipment to the Civil War battlefields that established Brady’s place in history as the founder of an entirely different profession, photojournalism.
For the first time, the public at home saw the reality of war—dead men sprawled across the road, trees shorn of their leaves and branches from a hail of bullets, amputations being performed in squalid field hospitals.
War had been recorded by painters for hundreds of years. But few ever saw a battle with their own eyes. If they did, a sketch and their memory of the event was all they had to guide them. Photography allowed incidental horrors to be documented. A soldier’s recurring nightmare could now become our own.
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. Ever since then we know it, and see it, differently.
In 1893 Thomas Edison announced the Kinetoscope, a machine for viewing moving images. Just two years later in Paris, the Lumière brothers invented a machine for projecting film, called the Cinématographe. Photography now had motion and a rapt audience.
In our time, photography’s reach has only grown—from full-length Hollywood movies on our phones to immersive virtual landscapes in our VR headsets.
When people saw photographic images for the first time, soon after photography’s invention, they often marveled at its strangeness—the extreme tonal range and foreshortening, the unusual perspectives, the arbitrary framing, the capturing of the immediate and the casual.
But then, with time and familiarity, they began to see the world the way a camera sees. It’s hard for us to imagine that mental shift. Everyone living today has always known photography. We can’t go back.
Perhaps this is our future too. What now feels shocking and portentous may be something we soon can’t imagine living without. Photography gave us new eyes. Who knows what creative tools A.I. will offer?