FROM GENERATIVE PHOTOGRAPHY TO AI
On the occasion of Paris Photo 2023, elementum.art is launching a curated NFT drop showcasing some of the pioneering artists in generative photography, including artworks by Manfred P. Kage, Gottfried Jäger, Karl Martin Holzhäuser, Hein Gravenhorst, and Heinrich Heidersberger. The drop is completed by works of artists using new generative digital tools in the times of AI, such as Andreas Müller-Pohle, Boris Eldagsen, and Michael Reisch.
Georg Bak, Photo Edition Berlin, and Scheublein Fine Art brought this exclusive selection of artworks.
Since the invention of photography in the mid-19th century by Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, and William Henry Fox Talbot, the medium has mainly been used to reproduce reality in, for example, depictions of landscapes, portraiture, and nudes. The first attempts of abstract photography were made around the turn of the 20th century with Etienne-Jules Marey’s hydrodynamic experiments and August Strindberg’s celestograms. The development towards abstraction was mainly driven by science and new technologies, as progressive photographers such as Alvin Langdon Coburn, Christian Schad, Man Ray, and Làszlo Moholy-Nagy experimented with new techniques and invented such things as photograms and vortographs (kaleidoscopic images). This happened partly as a reaction to the avantgarde movements in painting (cubism, vorticism, dadaism, etc.).
In 1930, Theo van Doesburg launched a manifesto for Concrete Art, where he defined a new conception of a universal form of art, which is not representational but purely based on mathematical principles. This idea was picked up by many contemporary painters, such as Piet Mondrian, Jean Arp, and Max Bill. It took a few more decades until the notion of concrete and generative photography came to surface. The notion of Concrete Photography first appeared in 1967 at Galerie acutelle in Berne (Switzerland) on the occasion of a group exhibition with Swiss artists René Mächler, Roger Humbert, Rolf Schroeter and Jean-Frédéric Schnyder. At the same time, a related movement in photography began in Germany and would find its way into art history as Generative Photography. One practitioner in this field was Herbert W. Franke, a pioneer of computer art, who combined rational physics and mathematics with photographic experiments. His oscillograms from the 1950s and 1960s are pioneering examples of computer aesthetics. In them, graphic vibrations – similar to Lissajous figures – were programmed on an analog computer system and then photographed from the screen of a cathode ray oscillograph.
In 1968, the German photographer Gottfried Jäger introduced the term Generative Photography with the exhibition of the same name at the Städtisches Kunsthaus Bielefeld, where he exhibited his pinhole structures alongside works by Kilian Breier (photograms), Pierre Cordier (chemigrams) and Hein Gravenhorst (photomechanical transformations). Jäger defined generative photography as follows: “Creation of aesthetic structures based on defined programs that are realized through photochemical, photo-optical or phototechnical operations with the aim of achieving an optimal and functional relationship for all involved elements in the aesthetic structure.” With this definition, Jäger based himself on the influential writings of the Stuttgart philosopher Max Bense, who, in his Aesthetica volumes (1954-1960) – inspired by the natural sciences – tried to ground aesthetics in its mathematical microstructure. Characteristics of Generative Photography are the experimental and serial process, the mathematical structure (program), and often the apparatus designed by the artists themselves. Not depicted (image-taking process), but rather an image is created (image-giving process).
Jäger’s tireless efforts as an artist, curator, and theorist led to the establishment of a class for photography at Werkkunstschule Bielefeld in 1966, and since then, he and Karl Martin Holzhäuser have continuously taught the theory and practice of generative photography, their yearly symposiums in Bielefeld now legendary. Notably, in 1975, they published the manifesto-like compendium Generative Fotografie with a foreword by Herbert W. Franke, which contained a summary of all photographic techniques known at the time.
The notion “to play against the apparatus” by theorist and philosopher Vilém Flusser set the tone for this particular style of photography, and the movement transmitted influential ideas that have radiated on the art of successive generations of international artists. It can be seen as paving the way for the fields of computer aesthetics and cybernetic art and later leading to the discourse on data images and digital photography, which is ongoing in the 21st century.
With the exhibition “Light image and data image. Traces of concrete photography” in 2015, the Kulturspeicher Würzburg attempted to trace the development of digital photography from concrete and generative photography to the latest tendencies in digital photography. TATE Modern also dedicated an entire room to generative photography in the extensive exhibition “Shape of Light. 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art” in 2018, and Shoar Mavlian stated in the catalogue that the “… ideas proposed by artists associated with Generative Photography could be seen as a precursor to digitally generated imagery. In 2018, it is perhaps useful to think of Jäger’s work in relation to digital algorithms and the way in which artists program the output of digital imagery.”
In the past decade, the rapid advancement of the technological possibilities of image production, such as CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), Photogrammetry, Augmented Reality, 3D scanning, Machine Learning with GANs (Generative Adversarial Networks) and diverse applications of text-to-image and image-to-image AI such as DALL-E, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion, have been putting photography in question. The Artist’s group darktaxa-project has formed itself under the direction of Michael Reisch with the aim of exploring the new era of image production. Based on Vilèm Flusser’s theoretical approach, a methodical interpretation of the currently evolving photography-based image vocabulary is created within the framework of exhibitions, lectures, and publications. Although media theory has not yet been able to agree on a terminology for today’s imaging processes, darkataxa-project is defining the building blocks for this new era, exploring photography’s contemporary generative potential.