INTERVIEW: Another America — AI-Generated Photos from the 1940s and 50s
Phil Toledano has often pushed the boundaries of photography to imagine the future; now he’s tapping into AI to create alternative histories, challenging our belief in any images at all.AI-generated images by Phillip Toledano
Interview by Jim Casper
In addition to his reality-based documentary work, Phil Toledano has been creating detailed, realistic-looking dystopian visions with photography-based artwork for many years. His imagined worlds have often required elaborate set-ups and collaborations with make-up artists, prosthetic specialists, costume designers, actors and extras, lighting experts, camera operators and post-production flourishes. Now he’s envisioning alternative histories using AI for a new project called Another America.
In this interview, LensCulture’s Jim Casper speaks to Toledano about the new work, and the shift from creating with a camera to creating using text prompts. Here is an edited version of their conversation.
Jim Casper: I’ve been looking at AI for some time now, and trying to think about the consequences of it for photography and photographers. And this new work you’re doing pushes a lot of buttons for me, so I’m eager to talk with you to learn more about it. Tell me what you’ve been doing with this project.
Phil Toledano: Well, for the last five or six years I was working on a project—not AI-related—called The United States of Conspiracies, because I was interested in how, during the Trump years, conspiracies in America moved from a shadow minority to the mainstream. It really fascinates me how a large percent of the population believes in things that just aren’t true and they live in this world that is entirely different from the world I live in. So I spent the last four or five years trying to reconstruct the world that they live in. Then AI came along and I began to think about the idea that in America, now, history is a choice. Facts are choices. And the thing about AI that’s extraordinary is that it can now provide evidence for lies—and it’s convincing evidence.
So I thought it would be interesting to use AI to create an entire alternate history of America in a sort of sociological way—and accompany that with stories that make it seem real. And that’s when I started this new project, Another America.
JC: Can you talk a bit about the decision to root the project in the past?
PT: I wanted to set it in the 1940s and 50s, because that was the last time when photographs seemed true. Then it was veracity, right? You look at a photograph from the 40s or 50s—and because you’ve seen that kind of imagery before—you are already primed to assume it’s true. So that’s why the project is set in that era. And the images range from things that clearly are not real to things that could be real, to things that seem real. I want to span that whole spectrum.
“The other thing I guess that’s important about the project is that in the context of history, we’ve had imagery like this for about a 100 years of photography. And, during that time, it became accepted as the truth. But now we’re at the end of that.”
I mean, when you look at the broad scale of human history, [the photographic image is] such a tiny part. When you think about what came before, for the thousands of years humanity existed, it was word of mouth. The written form was limited to a tiny percentage of people. So now we’re almost back to the idea of word of mouth, where you’re not really sure what’s true anymore. Because the idea of imagery as truth is now dead. That’s what AI has done.
JC: You’ve often created worlds in your work, but this time you’ve had to build every detail from scratch. How’s it been to work with this new tool?
PT: The AI thing is really fascinating because, before, with The United States of the Conspiracies work, each photograph was created around a specific conspiracy theory, right? And so what I’d have to do is shoot a back plate of something, then I’d work with a graphic designer to give it this particular conspiracy theory corporate identity. And then I would include that in the image.
AI is less specific in some ways, but it allows you to create this really complete world in a way that I’ve never been able to do before. And so I could create this kind of 1950s America with people and characters and disasters and events and mishaps and give it this veracity that was extraordinary to me. So it’s been incredibly exhilarating.
But the funny thing about AI is it’s quite easy to make things that are good, but it’s quite hard to make things that are great. Because you can do stuff like Donald Trump or the Pope dancing in a nightclub, and they’ll just crack it out in a second. But to make things that are a little bit surreal or kind of strange requires a lot of effort—it’s like whittling. You just have to whittle away for hours or days to try and get exactly the thing you want. And often it’s not exactly the thing you want, but it’s very close to the thing you want, and you have to be okay with that kind of elasticity.
JC: You worked really hard in some of your earlier work with photography to create things that looked real but were false or imaginary. You adopted all these alter egos, and tried to picture: What if my life was like this? What if my life was like that? And you went to a lot of trouble to make something physical that you could bounce light off—that you could capture in a camera—to create that illusion. And now you don’t have to do that anymore. You can, I assume, just type in some very smart, pointed prompts and as you say, whittle away until you get to something there.
PT: Well, I mean, AI is easy, but you still need to have an idea, and the idea still needs to be good. You have to start with that. The funny thing about AI I’ve realized is that, in some ways, you have to think about it more consciously than you do when you’re making a photograph. For instance, if I’m making a picture with AI, I have to think about who’s in the picture. What do they look like? What are their expressions? What ethnicity are they? What’s the weather like? What’s the vantage point of the camera? What lens am I thinking about using? Is it black and white? Is the color correct for this particular era?
You have to think about all these things just to make the right ingredients. And because I’ve been a photographer and an artist for so long, and because I’m so aware of the history of photography, I can reference all that kind of stuff, all that shit I’ve absorbed, all the photographers I’ve looked at for 20 years, 30 years. It all comes out in the thing I’m making.
JC: Well, sure. It’s your experience, and having all the references—historical references, artistic references—and then your own creativity and your own point of view combine to make something that’s uniquely yours. No one else would end up with some of the things that you’re coming up with now. But is it as gratifying to you? I guess what it does is it shifts your role and identity to more of a visual storyteller, which you’ve always been, but it puts you more into the position of director rather than photographer. Someone who’s really concerned about the production of the image rather than the physical capturing of it. Does that make sense?
PT: It makes perfect sense, man. And I would say yes and no to that. You’re quite right. For instance, in the project Maybe, when I was imagining all sorts of possibilities for my future and the future versions of me, I was also in some ways acting as a director because I was arranging the shoot, but then I was a subject of the shoot. So other people were taking those pictures of me. My assistants were right there and I was directing that process, too.
The metaphor, the analogy, I use for working with AI is that it’s like working with a very talented, very drunk person. So what happens is that if you just type in “pope in a nightclub,” you know, “wearing a puffy jacket,” like that picture that went viral —it’s super easy to do that. But for instance, if you want to do the stuff I’ve been doing, for the most part, it’s quite surreal or a little bit abstract. And that really requires AI to be cut. You have to sort of bludgeon it into doing what you want; it will take a long time to get the thing you want. And often you have to be okay with the idea that it’s not going to be 100% the thing you want. It may be 98% the thing you want. Or alternatively, it may suggest something that’s just 10% beyond what you were imagining, and that could be better.
JC: Right. So tell me about some of the surprises you’ve encountered working like this.
PT: Well, for instance, I became really enamored by this idea of making creatures part of the world. They’re kind of sentient creatures, right? And I did this whole thing with ape-like creatures that had escaped from a lab, and ended up homeless in New York. And I wrote this whole story about it. And what is amazing to me is the humanity that is apparent in the images, in the animals themselves.
I wanted to create an image of one of the ape-creatures in an alleyway, lying down and looking disheveled. And this is one of those times the AI surprised me: the creature was wearing a normal suit and jacket, but then it still had these naked, furry legs of an ape. I didn’t specify that, but it made it…
JC: Yeah. So there was something unexpected that delighted you in the process.
PT: Exactly. And it’ll do that often, but it can be frustrating too. For instance, I’ve been trying for months now to try and get AI to do a horse lying on top of a man, crushing him in the street. And it won’t do it, because I guess it can’t conceive of it. And then that’s interesting; it’s almost like a challenge, like a game of words. The other analogy I make is it’s kind of like being Gandalf. You have to know the spells, but then you also have to know the correct order of the words to make the spell work. Sometimes you have to keep rearranging the words, and you begin to understand the way in which it thinks because it’s the order of the words and what you choose to emphasize that will make things appear in the way you want them.
JC: So it is some kind of hierarchy or syntax…
PT: Yeah, it’s syntax. And so I find that really fascinating because it’s very intellectual in that way. And I also think that it makes mistakes and it makes things weird sometimes, which is really interesting because I think that in five months, or six months or a year’s time, it will not make those mistakes anymore. And those mistakes are interesting.
JC: Yeah. I know some people who are collecting early AI images of people with three fingers and things like that, because that glitch will get fixed pretty soon, and then those anomalies will disappear.
PT: Exactly. I had this image of two men with their shirts off wrestling in the street. And one of the versions it did, they were wrestling, but their arms were conjoined. That image is so amazing.
JC: As long as I’ve known you, you’ve been using dark humor as a way to explore some really serious issues. But those funny things stick in your head and they make you think more about real consequences that maybe aren’t so funny. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that concern you mentioned earlier—that now everything can be a lie.
PT: Look, I think it’s an extraordinarily important point in history where we’ve come to the death of truth. Every lie can now have convincing evidence. And so that’s what this work is showing: look how convincingly we can create history that never happened with this technology. I think that as a species, as a society, we’re going to have to figure out a new way to understand what is true or what’s not. Or it may be that we’re entering a moment in history where we accept that there is no visual truth anymore.
JC: Which is pretty terrifying.
PT: I mean, it could be, I don’t know, man, I guess it’s terrifying. But if you think about what I was saying earlier about the context of human history, I mean, everyone lived with that idea for millennia. That idea of word of mouth, of “I heard this thing.” I mean, I don’t know what the conversation was like 2000 years ago. I feel like that’s what we may go back to now.
JC: I have such mixed emotions about AI. On the one hand, I’m just completely in awe and amazed and delighted about this new capability. And it’s like, holy shit, this is amazing. And at the same time, I’m grieving the loss of some sense of appreciation of real photographic productions that were created with such painstaking attention to detail. I think about Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits, and I think of Gregory Crewdson, and Man Ray’s surreal stuff, or Joan Fontcuberta…
PT: Look, as you say, I guess it’s frightening, especially for people who are photojournalists. But for someone like me, who’s always enjoyed trying to create reality, it’s incredibly exciting.
JC: Do you see any safeguard against this? Do you think people can become educated to know when something is not real?
PT: Well, look at America and the millions that believe that the election was stolen despite the overwhelming evidence against it. People are committed to their own version of history, and it doesn’t matter what the facts are. So, you know, maybe for AI we’ll develop some kind of watermark, but it doesn’t matter because now we’re in a reality where people just choose their history.
JC: What kind of response do you expect from this work?
PT: I would like people to be aware of the historical nature of where we are now in terms of the death of truth, the facility with which we can create history. And to think about what’s next in terms of thinking: What is the language we use with each other when we want to see or say something that’s true? How does that work?
JC: Do you think you’ll continue working with a camera?
PT: Well, I’ll tell you man, for me, I’ve always been about ideas and I feel like AI was made for me. I saw it and I started playing with it. I said, “Holy shit… there are no boundaries!” In the past, I always had to use so many intermediaries to make things, to make worlds. And it was always so expensive and quite limited in a way. AI is so boundless. Another America is kind of exhilarating because you can roam so freely and the world is so endless. To go back to just taking pictures might seem small.
I think a lot of people have this reflex to say, you know: “A machine made this. There’s no humanity, there’s no soul in these pictures.” But I would argue there’s extraordinary soul in the pictures that AI makes. I would also argue that it’s kind of ironic because, guess what all the painters were saying about photography when photography became a thing in the 1850s? There was no humanity in it. There was no soul in it because a machine was taking the pictures. So here we are again, saying exactly the same thing.
Editor’s note: This work, and lots more, will be featured at the excellent PhEST photography festival in Monopoli, Italy starting September 1, 2023.