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What is, and is not, a 'photograph'?

A seemingly easy question to answer surely? A photograph is an image made when light falls on to light-sensitive material. The word 'photography', reportedly first used by the British scientist Sir John Herschel in 1839, comes from the Greek words 'phos' (light) and graphê (drawing or writing). So far so simple.

Here is an image that one would assume to be a photograph:

Pseudomnesia: The Electrician © Boris Eldagsen, courtesy Sony World Photography Award

But last month this prize-winning entry to the Sony World Photography awards caused controversy when the 'photographer' turned down the award revealing that he had created the image using AI (Artificial Intelligence) and deliberately entered it into the competition to raise awareness of the issue.

“We, the photo world, need an open discussion,” said Eldagsen. “A discussion about what we want to consider photography and what not. Is the umbrella of photography large enough to invite AI images to enter – or would this be a mistake?.............. AI images and photography should not compete with each other in an award like this. They are different entities. AI is not photography. Therefore I will not accept the award.”

In a subsequent interview with Zoe Williams he insists that AI isn’t about sidelining humans – it’s about liberating artists. “I love photography, I love generating images with AI, but I’ve realised, they’re not the same. One is writing with light, one is writing with prompts. They are connected, the visual language was learned from photography, but now AI has a life of its own. If people want to be silent and not talk about that, that’s wrong.”

Wow, what a can of worms that is! Loring Knoblauch, an American fine art collector, comments that currently the edges and boundaries of contemporary photography are in flux, arguing that this is healthy, as they are being extended by artists "but this very process of reinvention also forces us to reevaluate which parts of the medium actually fundamentally define it as a distinct artistic practice". Eldagsen argues that the generation of images using AI is not a threat to creativity, the human is still in control. Text prompts are used to select and refine the image, “Promptography is done with prompts. Photography is done with light,” Eldagsen told the BBC. “I think it’s very important to differentiate these [two things] by terms, and then to have an open discussion about this in the photography world. Is the umbrella of photography large enough to say [this type of imagery] is part of it? Because the visual language is the same.” Eldagsen says: "Two thirds of the prompts are only good if you have knowledge and skills, when you know how photography works, when you know art history. This is something that a 20-year-old can’t do.”

Here you can listen to Boris Eldagsen talking about the award and the resulting row, which is followed by a fascinating report on the work of digital video artists. Most photographers use post-processing software, such as Adobe Photoshop and/or Lightroom, who boast that AI 'empowers' us to 'edit like a pro'. The Sony Awards permit the use of cutting edge digital practices in the submissions, so where now do we draw the line? We are certainly entering another era of innovation in photorealist imagery. Eldagsen's stance could prove to be a key turning point in this debate.

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