I am fortunate to describe my friendship with Walter Smith as timeless. We worked together at Philadelphia Magazine, my first job, decades ago. I remember Walter coming into the office, a camera slung around his shoulder, with a box full of contact sheets for us to loupe. He was hustling on “front-of-the-book” assignments, perfect for his photojournalistic eye. Years pass, conversations get deeper and image making evolves. We connected in 2015 about his self published promo, recently we caught up about his experiments with AI.
Heidi: How long have you been making images via AI?
Walter: I really only started playing around with the technology and ChatGPT about a month ago. It’s a rabbit hole and you can most definitely make some great things from it.
How many hours and prompts went into the older fella portrait?
Those portraits were made, kid you not, in about 15 minutes. For me, it’s about the prompts you use and how the technology interprets them. I wanted to make something that looked like something I would actually take. I did not add in my photographs to build them, all were created from the prompts in Midjourney.
Did you draw from your own archive of portraits for this?
All my ideas around AI come from my past and what my thinking is in the present. I never created “fantasy” images. I was never that person. There always has to be some type of connection for me. I love what some folks are doing around the otherworldly images they’re creating. It’s just not where my head is.
What type of camera look and feel were you trying to create with this portrait?
I took a portrait of a woman named Jennifer over 20 years ago on polaroid 665. It’s beautiful and lives in the files somewhere. When I created that image I thought of some of her features and characteristics and used them as prompts along with camera type…lens…etc. The produced image was great but too clean so into photoshop I went to add grain and lens corrections. Again that was a 15 minute endeavor. I was getting messages on Linkedin from folks asking about the photograph. Is it a photograph? Where did I meet her…agency name…etc. The photograph of the old man, a friend asked if the one on the left was an old photograph of mine. There is the conflict for me. I like capturing stories, real stories from real people. Things that make you feel a little something. I did not set out to fool anyone and it brings me to the question of honesty and authenticity. We live so close to dishonesty on a daily basis with social media, not all but a great deal is curated to show us the best of something.
I’m never selling my film cameras. That was more of a joke between a few of us. I dropped film off yesterday…me and all the hipsters from Brooklyn.
How would you bill for one of these and have you done any commissioned work?
Very good question and I do not have an answer yet. I spoke with a couple clients that are already over AI.
What is the current language around crediting AI work, to call it a photograph would be a disservice.
I would think it’s in the photo illustration realm.
Fashion treatment 2
All I had to do was remove a 6th finger for this AI image
Where do you see AI generated images having a place in the industry?
In a treatment or a brief, sure, it would work perfectly to show clients what I want something to look like. It went into photoshop for a little image correction to get it close to something.
Photographic self portrait, my true self and original smile
Have you done a self portrait?
I did a mash-up of a portrait of myself and a portrait of Salvador Dali from Irving Penn. It looked very little like a Penn portrait but I see part of my face in the results.
In making these test images how would you describe the moments of making that AI image vs moments making a photograph developed in a human exchange?
Doing an AI portrait takes up a different type of brain space. So much of my work is about human interactions: the conversations in the room, how you feel being with another person, their energy, and honesty.
AI does not hold any of that for me. Of course, it’s creative and the stuff people are doing is beautiful and special but what does their breathing sound like? How do they carry themselves in a room? These AI figures, they’re fun to create and I certainly see their value but I can’t touch them, I can’t trust them. I know it sounds crazy but the more I see of it the more I just want to keep having conversations with real people about real things.
Are you drifting back to a human experience of an interaction, and those are creating the prompts?
I try to keep the descriptions in the prompts to very real-life things. Specific camera and lenses, tone and color, feelings,