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Synthetic Aesthetics
AI-generated photos and their lives on Instagram

Team Members: Giorgia Aiello, Carlo De Gaetano, Sabine Niederer, Leah Aaron, Rowena Jamal, Justina Kecoriute, Sophie van Oversteeg, Tingyu Shi, Joël Traudes

Lingyun Yue, Joe Zhou

0. Summary of Key Findings

Looking at 10k AI-generated photographs on Instagram, more than 60% of the images represent women. In such images, Japanese pop culture has a significant influence, focusing on youth and specific beauty norms. There's a strong emphasis on the physical attributes of women, leading to a pattern of sexualization and objectification. There is a relevant presence of AI photography with a surreal style, with a tendency towards dark, cold tones and complementary colors. When reverse-engineering prompts for emblematic images, we notice a 'toning down' effect, such as transforming surreal creatures into realistic figures or changing the portrayal of women from sexualized to more generic depictions.

1. Introduction

Current debates on the role of AI in contemporary visual media culture focus on questions about creativity and ownership and, on the other hand, on concerns about truth and the inauthenticity of visual content. These academic and public debates emphasize AI's potential and actual impact on those who produce imagery for a living or, conversely, on the public who view and consume media imagery. With this project, we would like to take a step back and examine AI-generated photography from the bottom up, starting from the oxymoronic hashtag #AIphotography on Instagram. Through AI-specific digital and visual methods (such as machine vision and reverse-engineering prompts) and close reading of image collections, we aim to understand how AI-generated imagery performs its photographic aesthetic.

This research contributes to knowledge of the work that goes into producing generative imagery, thus allowing us to understand better the creative practices underlying AI’s photographic aesthetic. In doing so, this project also engages with AI in its own right as a method to uncover and reflect on the photographic ‘status’ of generative imagery.

2. Research Questions

RQ1: How does AI-generated imagery perform its photographic aesthetic?

RQ2: Looking at thematic subsets, how can we characterize the representation of femininity and the surreal in the realm of AI photography?

RQ2: How can AI be used to study the language of generative photography?

3. Datasets

We start from the #AIphotography hashtag to build a collection of generated AI photos shared on Instagram (10k) from September 2022 to September 2023, and zoom in to explore the top 200 most-engaging images in the set. From there, we focus on two subsets to study the representation of ‘women’, and the realm of the ‘surreal’.

Main Dataset
We used the query #AIPhotography on Crowdtangle and downloaded the 10k most interacted with posts from Instagram (timeframe: Sept 2022 - Sept 2023).

Women Sub-set
From the 10k dataset, we selected all the captions and asked ChatGPT to detect all the hashtags relating to women. We filtered the 10k dataset to retain only the posts containing at least one of the hashtags in the women's hashtags list, resulting in a subset of 6363 images. From this subset, we selected and downloaded the top 2500 images.

Surreal Sub-set
From the co-hashtag network of the main dataset, we manually selected a list of hashtags related to surrealism and filtered the main dataset (10k) for the 500 most interacted with ‘surreal’ pictures.

4. Methodology

Main Dataset

From the main dataset of 10k Instagram posts, we downloaded the top 200 most interacted with images. We uploaded the dataset to 4CAT, running a co-hashtag analysis. Visually exploring the co-hashtag network with Gephi, we realized that the two most prominent clusters contained hashtags referring to two distinct themes: women and the surreal. For each theme, we compiled a list of representative hashtags (to name a few prominent ones: #beautifulgirls, #girlsfashion, and #virtualgirfriend for the women subset and #popsurrealism, #surrealart, and #surreal for the surreal subset). For the sub-set on women, the hashtags were extracted automatically with the help of ChatGPT by asking to extract all hashtags referring to women, femininity, and womanhood from the captions of the Instagram posts. For the surreal sub-set, the list of meaningful hashtags was compiled manually.

We used the list of hashtags to filter the 10k dataset and create two distinct sets: the womanhood set containing 2500 most interacted with posts and the surreal set containing 500 most interacted with posts.

Manually searching the accounts in the top 200 set in Google Search, we compiled a collection of interviews with creators in the top 200 set to discover their way of working with AI. The list of interviews can be accessed here, and will be completed and analyzed in a future sprint.

Women Sub-set

Analysis of Labels and Web Entities

We used Memespector with Google Vision API to get the labels and the web entities for the top 2500 images representing women. We used Gephi to visualize the network, showing only the 300 most interacted with pictures (fig 1). The network was then visually explored and manually annotated.

Figure 1: Image-Webentities network of the top 2500 most interacted with images for the women sub-set. Only the top 300 images are previewed in the network.

Analysis of the settings

We were interested in analyzing the kind of settings and backdrops characterizing this sub-set. In which kind of context do we find AI-generated women? We created a folder with the most-interacted-with 2500 images for the women subset, generating an image grid with Image Sorter. (Fig. 2)

Figure 2: Image Grid showing 2500 most interacted with images of the womanhood subset, sorted by hue.

Using the image grid, we manually identified clusters of images with similar backgrounds/settings. For each cluster, we manually selected emblematic images and removed the subject using the Photoshop function ‘AI generative fill’, which replaces the women in the picture with the background. (Fig. 3)

Figure 3: original image (left) and processed image (right).

We visualized the different settings by designing composite images and stacking the emblematic images for each setting (Fig. 4).

Figure 4: Composite images showing stacks of emblematic images per each type of setting. Each stack has been titled to introduce the type of setting.

Surreal Sub-set

What constitutes an AI-generated surreal photo? Guided by this question, the subset of 500 most interacted with surreal images was analyzed from two perspectives: a qualitative analysis of the content of each image, focusing on the representation of hybrid humans, animals, and machines, and a quantitative analysis of hue, saturation, and brightness of the images in the set.

Qualitative analysis of content

Subjects were manually extracted from all images in the set and organized in a Venn diagram showing the presence and overlapping of elements representing humans, animals, and machines (fig. 5)

Figure 5: A Venn diagram showing surreal subjects categorized as humans, animals, machines or any combination thereof.

Automatic analysis of visual characteristics

The same subset was automatically analyzed with Image J, calculating each image's hue, saturation, and brightness and generating three image montages. (fig. 6)

Figure 6: Three image montages showing the distribution of surreal images according to their hue, saturation and brightness.

Reverse-Engineer Prompting

For the main dataset, We reverse-engineered the prompts of the 200 images using the img2prompt API. From the list of prompts, we automatically extracted and categorized the most frequent words, using ChatGPT as an assistant with this prompt: I will provide you with a list of words, and you will return a table with the same list in column A and a category chosen from this code book in column B: [person] [verb] [adjective] [style] [object] [other].

We then designed a ranked tag-image grid in Google Spreadsheet with the most 5 frequent words per category and the most engaging image per word. (Fig. 7)

Figure 7: ranked tag-image grid showing the most frequent words per category, extracted from the reverse-engineered prompts of the top 200 images with the hashtag #AIphotography

For the two subsets, we selected two emblematic images to test how AI can be used to study the language of generative photography. (Fig. 8) We used the API of img2prompt to reverse engineer the prompts of the images automatically and then used such prompts in Stable Diffusion to generate new images.

Figure 8: Comparison of two emblematic images from the womanhood and the surreal subsets (on the left), their reverse-engineered prompts (center) and the resulting newly generated images (right).

5. Findings

Looking at 10k AI-generated photographs on Instagram, 6,363 images contain women, and 1,191 images have a surreal style. Within the most interacted with pictures, we also see a prominence of product design, mostly representing highly realistic cameras and lenses.

From the analysis of the portrayal of femininity, womanhood, and sexuality in AI-generated photography on Instagram, two main trends emerged:

Japanese Pop Culture Influence: A significant theme within the dataset is the influence of Japanese pop culture. This is characterized by a focus on youth, cuteness, and specific beauty norms, suggesting that AI photography in this realm is particularly prevalent in certain communities that value these attributes.

Focus on Physical Attributes and Sexualization: Both the Body and Anatomical/Body Parts sections emphasize that the depiction of women in these photographs often centers on their physical attributes. This recurring theme indicates a clear pattern of sexualization, pointing towards a predominant narrative of objectification.

The surreal
When AI generates surrealist photography, elements are mainly positioned and combined according to shape similarity. For style, certain preferences of AI have shown in this genre: prefer dark over bright, cold over warm, and frequent use of complementary colors.
Brightness: Highlights are often combined with blue. Most AI-generated pictures containing a surreal theme tend to have shadows towards darkness; they are often combined with green.
Saturation: Most pictures exhibit neutral saturation, but there are exceptions: in the surreal dataset pictures, most of the shadows have more saturation, while most of the highlights have less saturation.
Hue: Frequent use of complementary colors. Most pictures tend to have cold tones, with blue being dominant. In warm tones, orange is dominant. There is limited use of yellow and purple.

Reverse-engineered prompts
When reverse-engineering the prompts (using Img2prompt), we notice a 'toning down, describing certain elements and features in generic terms. When subsequently using these reverse-engineered prompts to generate new images (using Stable Difusion), we see how this toning down alters the substance of the image. For example, surrealist hybrid creatures become realistic people, and sexualized depictions of (mature) women are translated into depictions of young (and often white) women.

6. Discussion

The analysis of 10,000 AI-generated photographs on Instagram reveals insights into how AI (and AI creators) interprets and reproduces themes of femininity and surrealism. A predominant representation of women, influenced heavily by Japanese pop culture, highlights the use of generative AI to perpetuate certain beauty norms and youth-centric ideals. This focus on youth and specific beauty standards, especially within AI photography communities, reflects broader societal values and cultural influences. The tendency towards sexualization and objectification in the depiction of women in AI-generated photos is a critical finding. Even if we don’t know the original prompts used to generate such images, it raises questions about the biases inherent in AI algorithms and their training data and the choices made by AI imagery creators in the pursuit of online visibility, specifically on a platform like Instagram. The representation of women primarily through their physical attributes suggests a skewed narrative that could influence public perception and standards of femininity and beauty.

In the realm of the surreal, AI's preference for dark, cold tones and complementary colors underscores its unique aesthetic sensibilities. This prompting style often defies rational relations and opens up new possibilities for artistic expression. However, it also challenges traditional notions of what constitutes 'photography' and 'realism.'

The process of reverse-engineering prompts reveals the limits of using AI as a research tool to investigate how AI-generated photographs are done. It highlights how AI can alter the substance of an image when reverse-engineering its prompt, potentially leading to oversimplification or misrepresentation of complex themes. This finding is crucial for understanding the limitations and capabilities of AI in interpreting and replicating AI-generated images.

7. Conclusions

This study underscores the profound impact of AI on the photographic aesthetic, particularly in the realms of femininity, surrealism, and product representation.
The tendency of AI to replicate and potentially amplify existing cultural norms and biases, especially regarding femininity and beauty standards, calls for a more critical and ethical approach to training AI systems while raising questions about digital creators’ agency in the production and reproduction of these norms and biases. Future research should focus on understanding and mitigating these biases to ensure more balanced and diverse representations, as well as gaining insight into how AI image-makers craft and use prompts in their visual production
The aesthetic of AI-generated surreal photographs opens new avenues for artistic exploration. However, it also necessitates a reevaluation of what constitutes the photographic status.
The process of reverse-engineering prompts highlights the need for more advanced methodologies in AI image automatic interpretation. With further advances in generative AI, novel critical research (probing the algorithms), and new co-creation strategies are needed.
Using ChatGPT as a research assistant has proved helpful in extracting relevant hashtags, categorizing them, and creating the two subsets for our study. However, future research will tell if it could be a viable companion in extracting more complex information, such as the different creative workflows of AI creators from their interviews.

8. References

Lev Manovich (2019). AI Aesthetics. Moscow: Strelka Press.

Lev Manovich and Emanuele Arielli (2023). Artificial Aesthetics: A Critical Guide to AI, Media and Design.

Amanda Wasielewski (2023). Computational Formalism: Art History and Machine Learning. MIT Press.

Amanda Wasielewski (2023) “‘Midjourney Can’t Count’: Questions of Representation and Meaning for Text-to-Image Generators.” IMAGE: Zeitschrift Für Interdisziplinäre Bildwissenschaft 37, no. 1 (May 2023): 70–81.

Joanna Zylinska (2020) AI Art: Machine Visions and Warped Dreams (London: Open Humanities Press). Open access.

Donnarumma, Marco. "Against the Norm: Othering and Otherness in AI Aesthetics" Digital Culture & Society, vol. 8, no. 2, 2022, pp. 39-66.

Steinfeld K. Clever little tricks: A socio-technical history of text-to-image generative models. International Journal of Architectural Computing. 2023;21(2):211-241. doi:10.1177/14780771231168230

O’Meara, J., & Murphy, C. (2023). Aberrant AI creations: co-creating surrealist body horror using the DALL-E Mini text-to-image generator. Convergence, 29(4), 1070–1096.

Chesher, C., & Albarrán-Torres, C. (2023). The emergence of autolography: the ‘magical’ invocation of images from text through AI. Media International Australia, 0(0).

Romele, A., & Severo, M. (2023). Microstock images of artificial intelligence: How AI creates its own conditions of possibility. Convergence, 0(0).

Katja de Vries (2020) You never fake alone. Creative AI in action, Information, Communication & Society, 23:14, 2110-2127, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2020.1754877

Add additional references and links, referring to growth in popularity and accessibility of generative visual AI tools, such as DALL-E, Midjourney, and others; growing concerns about the potential impact of such tools on the creative community (AI in art competitions, fear of losing their jobs, ethics of using artworks to train the AI…) and the community overall (deepfakes, actors starting to copyright their faces, …); Generative AI seen as just another tool to add to creatives’ stack.

-- CarloDeGaetano - 13 Mar 2024
Topic revision: r1 - 13 Mar 2024, CarloDeGaetano
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