26 May 2024

The story behind the AI image that shocked the world

From Culture 101, 2:05 pm on 26 May 2024


Boris Eldagsen's controversial photography award winning work with AI, The Electrician

 Boris Eldagsen's controversial photography-award-winning work with AI: Pseudomnesia: The Electrician. Photo: Boris Eldagsen

“Just as photography replaced painting in the reproduction of reality,” German artist Boris Eldagsen argues, “AI will replace photography.

“Don’t be afraid of the future.” 

Last year something extraordinary happened to Eldagsen. He became the most notorious artist in the world, after winning an award at one of the world's biggest photography competitions with an image entirely generated by AI. 

Concerned that AI images were not being treated differently from photography, Eldagsen gave the award back publicly on stage at the glitzy London awards ceremony that followed. 

Subsequently, Eldagsen and his image, ‘Pseudomnesia: The Electrician’ made headlines around the world. It's a haunting image with a 1940s feel, of two women, one behind the other and with a man’s hand appearing mysteriously from out of frame. 

With his win Eldagsen had created a flashpoint in our history for the treatment of the AI image as art. He has perhaps changed the way photography is judged forever. 

As he explained to RNZ’s Mark Amery, Eldagsen had been cheekily using the image to test the competition’s lack of conditions around AI, and to create a discussion about the future of photography. 

Yet, upon winning and informing the organisers the winning image was AI generated, they told him he could keep the prize.  

Boris Eldagsen

Boris Eldagsen Photo: Antonio Vacirca

Eldagsen is adamant that an AI generated image is not a photograph. The two women in his image, he says, never existed. 

“It is not a collage, it is mathematics, probability. Pixel by pixel are added by probability learned from training data. 

“AI has seen so many images of cats, tables, women… that it has understood the archetype of it. But it depends on my prompt if that woman has a certain age, look, emotional quality, or… looks like from a certain time and genre. If I do not define these things, I get the statistical average, representing the training data.”

Eldagsen had been working as an exhibiting photographer around the world for decades, but in recent years has been one of the earliest adopters of new AI tools. He now gives workshops worldwide. Interest in the image-generating capabilities of AI has been growing exponentially.

Mirror Labyrinth 2024

Mirror Labyrinth 2024 Photo: Boris Eldagsen

‘Pseudomnesia: The Electrician’ won the creative open category at the Sony World Photography Awards. It was made entirely via the use of prompts with the then new AI tool DALL-E2.  It is an artform Eldagsen has subsequently dubbed 'promptography'. 

This was the first AI generated image to win a prestigious international photography competition (other images have won smaller competitions). Like many other photographers, Eldagsen advocates for photography and AI images to be considered under separate awards. 

Yet for others it's not so simple - why shouldn’t all images be judged on the final result and not how they are made?

For Eldagsen both photography and ‘promptography’ are ways to “explore the possibilities of depicting our inner reality and subconscious”. All the images by Eldagsen in this article were created with AI. 

Ambiphilia 3 2022

Ambiphilia 3 2022 Photo: Boris Eldagsen

While photography involves going out into the world and working directly with light, AI images can be created without leaving his computer. 

Although excited by his new work, he admits that after two years of working intensely with AI generators he does miss his photography work.

“Life was always surprising me. Now I just sit at a desk!”

As part of the exhibition theme ‘Believe’ The Auckland Festival of Photography is featuring interviews online with photographers and photo-festival directors around the world, including Eldagsen.

Trauma Porn Part1: Prodigy 2023

Trauma Porn Part1: Prodigy 2023 Photo: Boris Eldagsen

Psuedonesia III: Note To Myself 2023

Psuedonesia III: Note To Myself 2023 Photo: Boris Eldagsen