With AI Portraits, Does a Photographer Even Need a Camera Anymore?

It’s art, but it’s not photography

  • A successful Instagram photographer has confessed to using AI to generate his images. 
  • AI is just another tool for artists to explore.
  • The role of photography might change in the future.
A woman's face with AI markers overlaid onto it against a white background.

Westend61 / Getty Images

Jos Avery's Instagram is made up entirely of AI-generated images, which he then edits heavily to make amazing portraits. And most of his followers don't realize they're AI.

Recently, Avery confessed via Ars Technica that he uses Midjourney, an AI image-creating tool, to generate his portraits, which he then retouches in Photoshop. The pictures are incredible, but if you are familiar with Midjourney, you might spot the "house look" right away—Midjourney's humans all tend to have an empty, thousand-yard-stare kind of expression. The fact that Avery felt the need to confess, along with a recent ruling from the US copyright office that Midjourney pictures cannot be copyrighted, shows how confusing the field of AI art is right now. But is it even art? 

"Despite the fact that AI can be used to create stunning images, there is still a stigma attached to using AI as source material. Our immediate reaction is often to view AI as cheating, and this can be seen in the reactions of viewers and artists alike. Nevertheless, it is clear that AI has revolutionized traditional photography, allowing photographers to create impressive images without the need for a camera," Jared Floyd, founder and executive producer at Ajax Creative, told Lifewire via email.


Art can be anything, from a painstakingly-created painting to a splash of water in the desert sand. What it all has in common is intention. So, while an AI cannot generate art itself because it has no idea of context or intention, it can certainly be used by a human to make art. What's the difference, after all, between instructing Photoshop to fill in a computer-generated sky behind a portrait subject and telling an app to create the portrait subject itself?

[The] bigger issue right now is a lot of AI is drawing components of art from other existing artworks—which is essentially stealing.

"The negative reaction against AI as cheating may stem from the belief that art should be the product of human creativity and effort, but this viewpoint fails to recognize that AI is a tool that can enhance creativity and expand the possibilities of art much like retouching," photographer Margaret Pattillo told Lifewire via email.

In the case of Avery's Instagram pictures, he uses Midjourney to create thousands of images and then composite his chosen parts into the final work. Avery told Ars Technica that his 160 Instagram posts are the result of 13,723 images. He reckons each piece of work requires him to generate around 85 photos of source material and discards. 

His work is akin to collage—which nobody would claim cannot be art—with a lot of extra work on top. Only instead of hunting through already-printed images to collage, Avery has to hunt through already-generated AI images. It seems quite clear that, for him, the AI is a tool and a source, just like Photoshop is his tool for manipulating those pictures. 

Copyright Confusion

While we can easily see the validity of this kind of work—it's intended as art, so therefore it is art—the law is still catching up. On the one hand, tools like Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, and Dall-E all synthesize their output from an ingested mush of millions of images, most of which were used without permission and without consideration of their copyright. 

And on the other hand, the US Copyright Office just ruled that Midjourney-generated images cannot be copyrighted. 

A portrait of a woman created using artificial intelligence.
A portrait of a woman created using artificial intelligence.

Art Hauntington / Unsplash

"[The] bigger issue right now is a lot of AI is drawing components of art from other existing artworks—which is essentially stealing. Modern AI simply isn't good enough to truly create from scratch. It's often incorporating elements of someone else's work in them," digital artist Brandon Stocking told Lifewire via email.

And this is where it all gets confusing. If artists like Avery use AI to create their source material but then transform that material in the course of their work, what is its status? Is it still non-copyrightable AI? Or does it fall under the same considerations as collaged material? And can it even be sold, as it is based on possibly-illegal copyrighted material of other creators?

However this ends up, AI won't replace photography any more than photography replaced drawing and painting. It will just transform its purpose. 

"Photographers that capture weddings and events couldn't recreate those with AI. We still need to capture the person with my camera and have human interaction to capture emotion and connection between the subjects," Photographer Jane Goodrich told Lifewire via email. 

Sometimes, you just need to record a picture of real people doing real things.

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