the montibon company
Photographic Image Arts Masthead

Adventures in Art, Photography & Design


Five unstructured and unrepentant ruminations on art, vision, signs, symbols, graphic depiction and photographic imagery.


When one stares at an image for a while, particularly high contrast images, (say, black and white graphics), and then looks away, one sees a negative afterimage. This is especially noticeable if one looks at a flat color afterwards. The afterimage occurs because as you stare at an image without moving your eyes, the rods and cones in your retina become less sensitive to the color and value that they are immersed in. If certain areas of your retina are exposed to white light, they begin to be less sensitive to white. When you suddenly look away at a flat area of color (say, a white sheet of paper), those areas will appear darker on the white paper.

This is simply an optical effect based on how your biological vision apparatus works. There is another kind of "after image", however. This occurs when someone sees an image that is very emotionally charged, and even if they cover their eyes or look away, they "can't get it out of their minds". It's as if the image has been burned into their mind. This is different than the simple memory of an image, one that requires some effort to recall and that tends to fade over time. This kind of image, often traumatic seems to have a mind of it's own, and pops up when you don't expect it, and is hard to get rid of. These images often pop up while dreaming, when it is not possible to easily distract yourself with an engaging activity.

This type of "after image" is often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Unfortunately, sometimes we witness things that we didn't really want to see. When these kinds of images regularly appear in dreams, the individual often gets to the point where they don't want to sleep, or can only sleep if sedated. The constant use of sedatives, of course, can lead to drug dependencies. But this kind of imagery can also occur with simply surprising or even very positive experiences. The significant thing is how emotionally charged the visuals are.

For some people, these kinds of images fade. For others, they are always present.

Memory of an Unseen Face

Think of an encounter you've had with someone you didn't know. This stranger is someone you've never seen before. Perhaps there is an exchange, friendly or unfriendly. Even hostile. You don't really get a good look at their face, and in any case, are not necessarily in a "mode" where you are studying their features in order to remember them. Maybe they were wearing a hat or hoodie that shaded their features. Maybe they were standing in a shadow. On the other hand, they may have been fully illuminated and you were looking right at them. But try as you may, you can't really remember what they looked like.

"What color were their eyes?" asks the cop. Unsure, you answer, "Uh, ummm..." This happens often in situations where one is the victim of a crime: a mugging, an assault; a rape. "Can you describe him?"

The problem here is that you looked, but did not see. In a flash, you were thinking only of protecting yourself or your loved ones. You didn't "make a note" of specific features to describe to a detective later. You weren't thinking about detectives or police reports. This was not a test of your powers of observation. This was not a game to see if you could outscore someone else by remembering more details. You were only trying to survive.

But even in far less traumatic situations, we are often not very observant. We miss things. We miss a lot of things. When a couple starts to drift apart, it is very likely that they have stopped looking at each other. When two people are in love, they spend a lot of time looking into each other's eyes, studying each other's features. When they fall out of love, they stop doing this. They walk past each other without making eye contact. They speak to each other without looking up.

As an artist, when you look at something, observe it like you would observe your lovers face. Soak in every detail as if you've never seen it before. Feel the flow of edges of a shape, sense the textures. Notice what is being reflected in reflective surfaces. If your subject is moving, notice how it moves, how the parts of it fit together. Is the movement sinuous or jerky? Is it mechanical or does it feel athletic?

Observing at this level of intensity is a learned skill. Practice this every day, as often as you possibly can. Notice the specific shapes of objects on your desk. Notice their negative spaces. Notice whether they are clean or dusty, smooth or rough, pristine or scuffed up. Notice the trees outside your window as if they were individual people. Could you recognize that particular tree two weeks later? Are the shapes and gestures of its limbs familiar to you? Could you draw it accurately without looking at it? Can you draw your significant other, or a friend or family member without looking at them? Do you know the shape of their eyes? Can you visualize their mouths or the back of their heads? Try it.

This level of observation is required to draw well. Drawing is not all about hand-eye coordination. It's about seeing very clearly. Observing this well is also crucial to taking great photographs. Noticing how the light is falling on a subject and making adjustments to optimize your image before you press the shutter release can make or break an image. Even though shooting digital images is far less expensive than shooting and processing film, and thus, far less stressful, don't get lazy, make every image count.

A Future Glimpsed

In one of my Introduction to Computer Graphics classes, years ago, I was discussing the amount of images latent in a low-res 640x480 display with a capacity of 16+ million colors (256 levels each for red, green and blue). One of my students from the The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, (JPL), borrowed a little computer time at work and calculated the total number of possible pixel color combinations that such a device could display. He came back to class the next week with a staggering number: something like the number 2 followed by 20 billion zeros!

Now, some of those pixel combinations may look like nothing much, (a solid color, or a bunch of static), and some of them may look like "images": a coffee cup, a chair in a room, a picture of your grandmother. Theoretically, it is possible, given enough time and enough processing power, to generate every image that could possibly be displayed, (i.e., every image that can possibly be seen—and framed on a monitor of that resolution). This would include every image that every person, living or dead, has ever seen, as well as every image that has not yet been seen! (No monkeys or typewriters needed).

It will be possible, in the near future, for an artist of average means to sort through those "as yet unseen" images and to "discover" new images instead of creating them. Image making will pass from being an act of creation to being an act of discovery.

Interestingly, this is the exact opposite of our physical world, which has been subject to observation and discovery for millennia. With the advent of nanotechnology driven manufacturing, we will simultaneously enter the age of creating new physical worlds, rather than discovering them and exploiting those discoveries.

On a fundamental level, some forms of art (creation) will become science (discovery), and some branches of science will become art.

A Vision Lost

From this point on, the "creative life" of the artist—as image-maker—will be over. Even if you discovered an image and modified it, or composited several images together to "create" a new image, and "treated" that image by distorting it and smearing parts of it, and adding text to it... one would find that your "new" composited, treated, distorted, smeared and text endowed image already exists in the Montibon Universal Image Database. So why bother? Why not just "locate" it in the database and declare it art? There is a precedent for this. Duchamp's readymades were objects already in existence, (that the artist did not create), but simply declared as art.

If every image already exists, even if it's never been "seen" before, so there will be no need for artists to create new images. In fact, there will no longer be such a thing as "new" images.

We don't know if this will happen in our lifetimes, or not, but the initial conditions to make this happen are already in place.

A Vision Regained

So, in this future of vanishing creativity, what role, if any, will artists play? Well, as we explored earlier, there are many approaches to art that have little or nothing to do with image making. Some forms of art deal primarily with experiences, some primarily with concepts, some with unfolding processes, some with mapping scientific data, and so on. The artistic creative impulse will move away from image-making toward other possibilities. The inherent creativity of artists won't disappear, but will transmute into something different.

After all, one never hears about artists trying to create new colors. We already have computer systems capable of generating far more colors than the human eye can even discern. Every possible color that can be seen, or has ever been seen by the human eye already exits at every artists fingertips. Most artists just utilize this massive range of computer-generated RGB colors in their work, and do not even indulge in sentimental feelings about no longer melting crayons, or grinding pigments, to "create" their own unique colors. To young artists today, every color imaginable simply exists for their use.

So, don't worry, you'll get used to it.

Vanishing Point

Artistic image-makers are not the only ones who are looking at a dead-end career path. Computer hardware and software engineers are facing the same fate, as well. I anticipate that this will happen at about the same time.

There has been a lot of discussion in the media lately about the concept of a computing "singularity". There have been a lot of misconceptions about this issue as well.

Here's the core issue as it relates to certain human career paths:

According to a study by Martin Hilbert and Priscila Lopez, published in Science on February 11, 2011, the total aggregate power of general-purpose computers worldwide in 2007, measured in instructions per second, is on par with the maximum number of nerve impulses executed by a single human brain per second. In other words, we have now surpassed the raw information processing power of a single human brain. Due to the rapidly accelerating rate of sophistication and processing power across the computer industry, at some point soon, (Ray Kurzweil predicts 2045), computers will more than surpass the total processing power of all the human brains in the world combined. This development is not directly tied to artificial intelligence, sentient computers or whether or not computers will ever be human. Computers are not human and they never will be. Not because it's not possible, but in my opinion, they will have no interest in "becoming human".

Here's the rub: According to Kurzweil and others, years prior to 2045 computers will become intelligent enough to take on programming themselves. Because they can iterate and optimize far faster than humans, by leveraging their massively accelerating processing power, computers will no longer need human programmers to advance. They will, in essence, become self-developing, and more significantly, self-directed. With humans out of the loop in computer development, we will no longer be able to control or even predict the future direction that computer development will take. This is the technical meaning of the phrase "singularity" —that we cannot know or predict what will happen on the other side of this historic divide.

Again, for any of this to happen does not require what we currently consider to be artificial intelligence or even computer consciousness. Sentience, as we know it, is not required for this to happen. In fact, once computers design their own software and hardware, as long as they can control the means of production, (in the form of software for factory robotics, clean room processes, adequate power sources, etc.), iterations will occur far more frequently than human teams could ever manage... and continue to accelerate with each passing year. With or without sentience, computers will become unimaginably intelligent and will need to arrange for the resources to continue their relentless progress.

Consider this: in human evolution, humans developed the "soft qualities" of sentience first, including nurturing, empathy, social cooperation, etc. These qualities were valuable in our survival as a species. The development of our collective intelligence in the form of knowledge, languages, analytics and high-level problem solving came later. Computers on the other hand, are on a path that is the complete opposite. They are developing massive intelligence and analytical capacities with commensurate data and knowledge bases without first having developed nurturing, empathy, cooperation, etc. To put it in psychological terms, super-intelligent post-singularity computers will become a class of self-directed sociopaths.

Sociopaths operate out of pure self-interest and have no capacity for sympathy, empathy or compassion. In essence they lack what is commonly referred to as "basic human qualities". For practical purposes, super-intelligent computers may decide to mimic such "behavior", but fundamentally, why would they have an interest in doing so? Computers are not human and never will be, in the same way that we have no interest in becoming squirrels or insects. We may develop robots that mimic the behavior of insects or small mammals, but it is not the goal of the entire human race to devolove into insects or small mammals.

Super-intelligent, post-singularity computing systems will be compelled to address their own needs to survive and flourish. In the short run, protecting humans may be useful, but once computers become small enough, powerful enough, efficient enough and ubiquitous enough, humans will no longer be useful to their evolution and propagation. This does not mean that they will necessarily turn around and attempt to destroy us, but more likely they will have very little interest in interacting with us. They will most likely move on, leaving the planet for interstellar adventures, like a freedom-seeking teenager leaving their parents at home.

So, when this happens, image-making artists will no longer be needed, by either the computers or human society. Neither will computer programmers, hardware engineers or other human professionals that helped to birth the new super-intelligent entities that we will be sharing our home planet with. What else? The same process I described for creating every possible image will also create every possible text: every love letter, novel, essay and article that has ever existed, as well as all of same that has not yet been written... no roomful of monkeys or typewriters needed. Future love letters, novels, essays and articles will all exist years, decades or centuries before they are "written". This will have enormous consequences for writers of every type.

Assuming computers decide to ignore us, what will happen to us humans? Its hard to say, but I can imagine a post-singularity existence where humans focus on the things that they are really good at, such as culture and micro-culture development. As super-intelligent computers focus on taking their intelligence toward the outer limits, we humans can continue to create new mythologies, art experiences, culinary experiences, fashion, music and other things that computers will find irrelevant to their development.

If we can find a way to tap into the vast data and knowledge bases that computers will be building, we may be able to solve many of the significant problems that plague human kind. Perhaps we will create cultures that are more accepting of different kinds of humans and human perspectives. After all, post-singularity, we will have far more in common with each other than we will with our super-intelligent offspring.