How To Survive Technological Changes as an Artist

How To Survive Technological Changes as an Artist

With new technology being invented seemingly every day with the power to upend our profession, it’s easy to become despondent about the future of our art form. Luckily, there is one fundamental advantage we hold which cannot be engineered out of existence.

I have a problem. I’m not the only one. But, because I write weekly about technology, I may just be a wee bit more susceptible to this particular issue. As someone who comments on technology, it is part of my responsibility to stay on top of new tech coming down the pike. Not that I can tell the future. Although, wouldn’t that be nice? No, rather, it simply pays to understand new technology as early as possible so that you know how and when you are going to need to adjust your business model. Of course, constantly being aware of potential threats can also be incredibly depressing. Why keep fighting when you know that an even bigger wolf will soon knock at your front door? Still, we continue to march. Simply put, for a true artist, continuing to fight the good fight is as basic as drawing breath.

Of course, most of these coming dilemmas never really amount to much other than a speed bump. Other times, the coming wave is as clear to see as a mountain top, yet the way over to the other side remains far less visible. We are perhaps in the middle of the most daunting threat to artists in centuries with the dawn of artificial intelligence, or AI. I have expressed my thoughts on the topic, both practical and ethical, multiple times in the past. But, long story short, love it or hate it, AI is here to stay. As someone with a dual career as a still photographer and a filmmaker, I’ve had to reckon with how the technology is going to fundamentally change how I work, what this new competitor to the market is going to mean for me professionally, and what the very future of the overall industry will even look like once AI is fully seated into the world.

Of course, going down the mental rabbit hole of trying to figure out how you’ll deal with the coming industrial revolution-sized changes AI will create naturally forces us to ask the follow-up question. How can we adapt to continue to compete? Most of us didn’t spend years becoming masters of our craft as photographers, directors, writers, or anything else, only to be forced to spend the rest of our lives entering prompts in front of a computer. And, many of us would like to continue to do the art we love in the way we love to do it, no matter what the algorithm says.

But, in many ways, AI is just the newest kid on the block. It may be the most powerful, but it is hardly the only technological change that has come about for artists over the last centuries. Think of what painters must have thought when the first photograph was created. More recently, think of the shift from film to digital. Remember how many artists felt that photography itself was going to die because of how “easy” digital made the process. Apple only intensified this question with the invention of the iPhone. Suddenly, everyone on Earth could execute a perfectly exposed photograph that previously would have required a skilled craftsman with technological knowledge to create.

Technology has a way of making our jobs as professional artists easier and more difficult at the same time. In many ways, it’s a great blessing. For instance, with the shift from film to digital, it allowed us to be more bold in our artistic risks. You need an extreme amount of confidence in your technical craft to expose film or take chances in the dark room when you don’t have a handy LCD screen there to double-check that you’re headed in the right direction. Digital, in many ways, has gifted us with a lot more flexibility to push ourselves creatively while maintaining a certain safe space. At the same time, digital removes much of the mystery from the photographic process. Prior to that, simply getting an image photochemically was something of a magic trick to much of the world. Sure, there eventually were things like auto exposure meters even in film cameras, but most high-end work was a very technical process which separated truly professional photographers from snap shooters. A pro needed to really understand the technical craft in order to produce quality images. In the digital age and especially in the mobile age, it is far easier for someone with little to no knowledge of photographic craft to still generate a technically perfect photograph just by buying the right camera (or phone). This is not to say that the image would be in any way good or artistically special. But it would at least be in focus and exposed correctly according to the grayscale. This has led to more and more people thinking that they don’t need the services of a professional photographer at all. I mean, why pay some dude to take pictures when all you really need is a cell phone and some editing software with a preset to make it look “cool?”

Obviously, that’s all nonsense. The value of an artist isn’t merely their ability to technically execute their craft. The value of an artist comes from their unique way of seeing the world and the way they translate their personal feelings into their art form. What stories do they choose to tell and how do they tell them? Not just, “what camera did they use” or “what brand of lights did they buy.” Rather, where did they place those lights, why did they place those lights where they did, and when did they choose to put those lights in unexpected places or not use lights at all in an attempt to create something brand new that the audience has yet to ever see.

There’s an old adage that seems to always make its way back into my mind whenever I’m fretting about technology’s ability to replace me and my work. I have no idea who said it first, but it goes something along the lines of remembering that pencils have been around for hundreds of years, but that doesn’t mean that we have any more Shakespeares than when people used to have to write with expensive quills. In other words, making “art” easier to create doesn’t inherently make people more creative. Anyone with a smartphone in modern times has more filmmaking tools on them every minute of the day than early Hollywood pioneers had to make their feature films. But that doesn’t mean that everyone with a cell phone is automatically a genius like Buster Keaton. Just because I own a camera whose autofocus ensures that my pictures are always sharp doesn’t make me Annie Leibovitz. What an artist does is find unique ways of seeing the world and telling their stories that aren’t simply a factor of technological advances. Instead, they are creating and refining the very art form as they go.

I mention all this because it is the one power we have as artists that is free from the threat of technology. Even something like AI, which literally performs its magic trick by stealing from other artists, is mathematically incapable of creating truly original work. Yes, it can create a final product that no one has ever seen before. But, AI models are literally trained by feeding on pre-existing material, finding ways to translate that art into mathematical equations, then spitting out “new” works based on the millions of equations of other works on which it has trained. This can lead to some amazing results. But, fundamentally, an AI’s knowledge is always going to be literally based on the pre-existing data which it is being fed. So, what it's creating is always going to be, in some way, derivative. Now, I can easily go on a long tangent about the legal and ethical ramifications of this, but, again, since AI is only going to continue to develop, we’d be better served to think about the things it can’t do and how that relates to our own goals as artists. And the one thing no technology will ever replicate is our ability to be original storytellers. Yes, ChatGPT can mimic other writers. But, it can’t come up with that original thing in the first place. That is the realm of the human being.

It’s hard not to get depressed from time to time when we think of all the challenges that we face as artists. We work in highly competitive industries oversaturated with supply. We are constantly needing to justify our financial value in order to make the money to live our lives in the face of inherent downward pressure on our rates. And then, just to make things even more fun, a new technology emerges every year that threatens to demolish the entire industry altogether which we must then fight off in order to do the things that we love.

But, at the end of the day, we do love it. That’s why we became artists in the first place. And regardless of what technology might come along promising to be able to do our jobs better than we can or being able to offset decades of our technical craft experience by adding a clickable button to do the same thing instantly with no training required, the world will always need original storytellers. The world will always need people with the ability to produce original thoughts and push the envelope. The world always needs people to think outside of the box. To create. To expand humanity. The world needs people who can communicate what it truly feels like to be alive.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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We know the history of technology and it's impact on labor. We know where we're at presently. What we don't know, or have anymore clarity than the last time this subject was raised on Fstoppers, is where this debate over AI will take us. Sure we still have a few painters, film photographers, and other skills which thrive on creativity catering to a niche market. But while technology has yet to totally eliminate the need for professional photography services, its day may be coming. Machines will get better at creating original work. Arguably it is derivative work, but isn't that true of what we all do anyway? Don't we stash ideas in the back of our minds from reading books, or attending workshops, or looking at other people's pictures for incorporating in a future project of our own? The Writers Guild went on strike last year to fight for job security in the face of being replaced by AI. Studios who employ these people didn't seem to be terribly concerned about a loss of original content if humans were to be replaced by machines. Ultimately technology will move forward and prevail over labor... it always has. The one thing I doubt that a machine will ever succeed at doing, which you allude to in your final paragraph, is have feelings. And feelings are still a big part of commerce, as the underlying reason one person buys something from another person.

I have no desire to enter a never ending argument about "derivative" and yes, there is very little in art that is completely original. But as the saying goes "I know it when I see it" and in my opinion there is DERIVATIVE and there is derivative. DERIVATIVE is when a photographer is not making the slightest attempt to be original. The least a photographer can do is attempt to be original.