Tim Tadder is widely revered as a bold and visionary photography icon. With numerous accolades to his name and a client list ranging from Amazon to Nike, he is recognized as a leader in advertising photography and beyond. Since late January, though, he has turned into a highly controversial artist in the industry with his work in AI. I sat down to chat with him about the polarizing pieces he has been creating.
I was ready and excited with a list of questions. I had a cozy introduction planned and some softball questions to start the conversation. But it was not more than a few sentences in that Tadder jumped into what he really wanted to say: he is completely fed up of being attacked for his explorations in AI. So, I went with it and jumped right into the flames.
Attacks From the Art Community
January 23rd, Tadder began posting work created with Midjourney, an AI image generator. Tadder described himself in this way:
[ I am an] established artist who has been a paid creator for 25 years at the top level. I am sharing my experience using this new tool. I am […] exploring the most powerful creation tool ever made.
For him, it’s a way to exercise his creative mind and explore self-expression. Over the decades, he has transitioned from film to digital, to CGI, to Photoshop composites. With the development of a new creative medium, is it any surprise that a photographer heralded for his boundary-pushing work is exploring it? Though many photographers are praising his other-worldly visual explorations, the backlash from the photography community has been merciless, according to Tadder.
Because I’m doing any AI, I’m being labeled, boxed, and attacked because I am being an artist and I am exploring creativity. Just because I am exploring a powerful tool, sharing my knowledge, and sharing my insight from having lived through many mediums, if that is justifiable to hate, to discount, and to completely characterize me as a monster, then I don’t want to be a part of that community.”
He continues: "Being attacked is exhausting, and it happens every single day.” He later adds: “Why are you hating on an artist who is creating?”
The truth is, although I didn’t write any of my thoughts on his posted images, my initial reaction to the AI pieces was the same guttural response as many: “What? That’s cheating!” I was vexed.
The Image-making Process
I first came across his work when we were both featured photographers in the 2021 Sports issue of Lens Magazine. His work was completely unique and jumped off the pages. I loved it instantly, and I have followed his thought-provoking photography since.
After the New Year, though he maintained a recognizable cohesion, his work changed somewhat. I started reading the comments below more carefully. He was posting AI-generated images. As one more beautiful and imaginative piece rolled out after the other, I got increasingly irked: “That’s cheating! How can he do that?” One night, irritated and curious, I sat down and tried Midjourney. I was painstakingly shooting a campaign that week, and after seeing one of his pieces, I thought: “Well, maybe I’ll cheat, just to see what happens.” I suddenly understood his perspective. I must have sat there for two hours. It was not giving me what I wanted. Each AI-generated image gave me parts of what I wanted, but it never got it quite right. I had expected to sit down, type what I wanted, and get it. I had thought similarly to a follower who attacked him on an Instagram post: “It takes absolutely 0 skill to type words into a machine until it spits out what you’ve typed… you’ve run out of talent.”
After my failed trial, I went back and looked at his AI pieces. They were cohesive. The palette, the look of the “models,” the backgrounds, and the airiness. How did he do that? My mind shifted at that moment about his AI work, which led me to pursue this interview.
He described the specificity and laboriousness of his process:
It’s a cohesive choice that I’m directing this tool with my vision and my sensibility. AI didn’t sit down and spit out images for me. I sat down and labored over the images for hours and hours and hours, and then I curated it, and then I fed it back into AI, and then I pushed it further, and then I mixed this image and this image in Photosho and put it back into AI and had it regenerate it. I went through a process.
The concept that making intentional cohesive pieces is as simple as stringing a few letters together on a keyboard and pressing enter is not how the process works in Tadder’s pieces. The pieces require direction, re-direction, and compositing. It is a very intentional and time-consuming creation process.
Looking back, my own outrage came from a combination of being uneducated about the process and, if I was honest, a fear of being obsolete after investing so many years of honing my craft. It seemed that all my learning, practicing, and years of experience were being threatened by a computer that needed nothing more than a few words strung together to out-create me. When confessing this, Tadder replied:
People are worried about being obsolete like you said, so am I! So am I.
A follower on his Instagram added a similar sentiment:
The real reason we people are reacting in such a negative way to AI is because we are scared. People are simply afraid of anything new, especially if they see it as a threat.
Yet another commented: “Resenting a new technology will not halt its progress. - Marshall McLuhan"
AI Is Fundamentally Bad for Commercial Photography and for Humanity
My biggest surprise from our talk was Tadder’s straightforward moral characterization of AI:
AI is fundamentally not a good thing for humanity. It is fundamentally a bad thing for humanity.
He even continued by adding:
“It can replace photography, and it will replace photography in advertising campaigns, in commercial campaigns, in magazine articles.”
I never got to ask the obvious follow-up question, “if it’s fundamentally bad for humanity, why are you using it,” as he quickly followed up:
Me not using it is not going to stop it.
Pandora’s box has been opened, and the technology, he reasons, is now part of our ecosystem. It’s out, regardless of how we feel about it. His general sentiment seemed to be that we might as well get used to it and get on board.
AI images are generated from learned information, not collages.
He also addressed some of the misconceptions about how images are created. Tadder explains that the platform has scanned images and created mathematical representations of them. They turn images into numbers. The technology then generates mathematical algorithms for different characteristics. For the “in the style of” for example, Tadder explains that the software attributes mathematical representation for an artist’s use of color, of lighting, of model choices, casting, and location. It then generates images from scratch in that style. It makes its images from learned information, not from collages. That’s a big misunderstanding.
AI Suits and Copyright
Another point of contention that he touched on is copyright: “If we are going to sue people over style emulation, then every single photographer who ever created is guilty.” Art was built on emulation and expansion. Would there be a Picasso, were there not a Braque? A Monet without a Pissarro? He also pointed out that copyrights are only as practical as their enforceability, recounting many stories of people around the world using and profiting from his work. Tadder believes that, over time, artists will be able to have the copyright to their AI pieces, and artists will be paid to create AI works:
After the anger fades and the hate fades, people are going to be like, ‘There’s actually something to this.’
In closing, I think some questions are worth being asked.
- Why is the art community responding so aggressively towards an artist exploring a new medium and sharing his experience?
- What is it about AI that makes artists so upset? Is it really the copyright, the perceived easiness of the medium, or is it something deeper?
- If we disagree with the concept of AI, are we then morally bound to boycott its use? Or, should we accept it and adapt, as so many other mediums introduced throughout the history of art?
I want to thank Tim for agreeing to take the interview. Initially, he declined the interview due to being burnt out by incessant attacks and criticism. I pointed out that novelty in art has never been accepted. Van Gogh only sold one painting before his permanent abandonment into despair at age 37. Monet’s paintings were so snubbed by the art community during his first two decades that his poverty often led him to starvation, even resorting to eating the fruit in his still-life setups. Digital photography was snubbed by film photographers, then Photoshop was vilified as cheating. Artists historically don’t respond well to change. I suppose something in there made him come back around, and I’m grateful. I applaud him for continuing to make art despite the pushback. Despite the many pundits, there are even more of us who continue to appreciate his bold pioneering. I’ll close with a quote I have on my desk, paraphrased from Warhol:
Make art, and while everyone is deciding whether they like it or not, make more art.
My conversation with Tadder was recorded, with permission, mostly as a reference for the quotes in the article. I am far from adept at video and YouTube, but if you would like to watch the full conversation, you can do so above.