Shaping the Art of Photography: Zachary Scott’s Point of View on AI
We recently published an article offering our perspective on how AI is changing our industry. At this point, it’s not a question as to whether or not it will, but how. And while it’s ok to be nervous about its impact, it’s important to recognize that it also comes with opportunities. It is our responsibility as reps to keep our finger on the pulse to feel out what trends will come and go, and what things will shake up our industry. Our artists are a group of forward thinkers, so knowing they would have points of view on the topic, we’ve talked to some of them about AI.
Zachary Scott’s work brings a harmony of story, emotion and design to create a singular cohesive image that feels original. With expression being one of the notoriously lacking elements of AI, we thought his perspective on the topic would be a good place to start.
Note: all images were generated by Zachary via Midjourney. Thank you to all the artists whose work is part of these images.
How might you use AI?
I view creative briefs as a much-appreciated spark that can ignite a bonfire of potential visual ideas and solutions. Creative briefs, like AI prompts, are most often expressed through words. I find inspiration in interpreting these words and building images that communicate a clear story in an artful way. Real-world constraints such as budget, deadlines, and client needs have a way of reining in this flood of creativity. While I see value in constraints, I think AI will free me to explore image-making in a resourceful way without any guardrails. I view it as a tool to help express a creative viewpoint to my clients, and as a personal way to create daily without anything holding me back.
How does AI fit into the commercial world?
I can’t help but feel like I’ve been playing the role of a human photo bot for my entire career. A client will come to me with a vague idea, and I am tasked with generating that imagery in my own visual language. Since I can’t really sketch beyond stick figures, I will often get the ball rolling by entering combinations of prompts into a general search engine and creating a composite photo based on existing imagery- which could include anything from a snapshot photo, a cartoon drawing, or even a master painting.
I've done this to communicate with not only clients but stylists, set designers, producers and other collaborators. The process of inputting a prompt into an AI platform feels similar to the first steps in my creative process.
I actually think it's a great way to strengthen your work. You have to be discerning in your choice of words, as prompts, in order to generate the image you ultimately want to see. In turn, you need to think critically about how you communicate your own work and how clearly you can describe that visual style to clients.
You mentioned how you believe it can strengthen your skills and in turn your work. Can you explain that a little more?
I think the real takeaway from this technology is how we can use it for storyboarding, concept building and rendering out usable assets for composites. I don't have any interest in presenting 100% AI-generated images in my portfolio. As I've become more familiar with Midjourney, I've started to create composites of real people with scenes I've generated using AI. Just recently I was at a design studio shooting headshots for the company website and I thought it could be cool to edit a few of the designers into some of my AI-generated environments. For the most part, it worked- but In the future, the process will involve more planning. I’ll render the backgrounds ahead of time and shoot the talent with matching light, color reflections, and foreground props that match the scene. This will provide a seamless transfer into the generated background. Overall, this is the most exciting use of the technology- The AI becomes a place, just like any other, where any narrative can occur. The possibilities seem endless.
All commercial applications aside, I think I’ll mostly look at AI image generation as visual journaling. Free writing is a powerful tool for writers; I see this as the same valuable exercise for photographers or other visual artists. There is something healthy in free association image making. To enter a flow state where minutes and hours go by without notice, where nothing is right or wrong- where we have the potential to form brilliant ideas and have the space to make brilliant mistakes. I’m excited to see where this can take me.
Do you think AI will replace photography?
Yes. I think it can, and will replace photography in certain applications. Current resolution aside, AI can look as good as original photography and illustration, especially in the conceptual, photo illustration, and still-life spaces. I have also made convincing lifestyle and fashion images in the latest version of Midjourney. However, I think authentic human involvement is imperative in commercial photography to create compelling, emotive work. For example, with CGI projects, a photographer is often involved as a director because we are experts at seeing. We are used to looking at light, shadow, and objects in interaction. Have you ever tried to “fix” or composite parts of a face in Photoshop, or accidentally retouched too much detail and noticed that the expression of your talent has changed, or just looks plain weird? Microshifts to facial features can change the way the viewer reads an expression. When I direct talent, I zero in on the smallest facial expressions in order to convey a specific story. It’s a sensitive exercise in human connection and, I believe, outside the bandwidth of current AI.
Do you see incorporating AI into work as a threat or opportunity? And, how can using your own images enhance the process?
It has always been the case that when new technologies become available, we will need to evolve our roles. I see it as an opportunity. If we balked at any new technology, we wouldn’t be successful in such a rapidly changing creative climate. I plan to use AI to push my creativity further and explore any wild ideas that come to mind. For years, I’ve pitched a "Rube Goldberg Machine" scenario for various editorial projects, but I’ve yet to get it approved- usually for budget and timing constraints. That was one of the first prompts I explored when I started working with Midjourney.
Also as an experiment, I generated images that mirror actual projects I’ve shot like my New York Times Magazine cover story with Bob Odenkirk. I typed in a very specific prompt that describe my favorite image from the project where Bob is sitting on a cactus. The output was much different but offered up examples of potential executions that I never thought of prior to the shoot.
Ultimately, I'm interested in the feedback loop that this technology can provide. AI will be a great way to push our creative thinking to unexpected places, so I'm embracing it. In one of my stream-of-consciousness sessions, I decided to generate a jellyfish table lamp which after a few iterations became a jellyfish chandelier, and then eventually evolved into a fashion series featuring jellyfish earrings. One example of where these platforms can take you. I don't believe AI will serve as an idea generator, but possibly as the greatest late-night spitballing partner, you could ask for.