In recent years, Artificial Intelligence (AI) text-to-image models have emerged as a useful (though controversial) tool for artists and illustrators alike. Using written prompts in natural language (such as "a cat painted in the style of Monet"), these models are capable of designing images across a range of styles—from hyper-realistic to abstract.
My latest body of work, Still Life, explores a collection of botanical images generated by DALL·E 2 and Craiyon (formerly DALL·E mini). Following my written prompts ("botanical specimen calotype by William Henry Fox Talbot") the AI designs a series of plant forms. Some resemble tulips or poppies, while others emerge as indecipherable wisps. Seedheads sprout discordantly from wiry, dry stems. Petals coil like unfurling ribbons.
DALL·E 2 can not only create a series of images, it can generate new variations of its own designs, and edit preexisting images into new forms. Which raises the question: if AI can create a variety of plant forms, could another AI system classify them?
After generating random botanical forms with these text-to-image models, I uploaded the image files into a plant identification app, seeking to classify these AI-generated designs as real plant species. The app's computer vision model suggested a few possible species for each image. A wisp of foliage was interpreted as a species of willow. A leafy stem: Culver’s root. A burst of petals: Gymnosiphon, a genus of flowering plants in the yam family.
This body of work is my most performative, and the most informed by contemporary digital technology. But it also disrupts the canon of early botanical photography; challenging the history of this two-hundred-year-old medium through a series of convincing botanical "photographs".
The project's second step, where I use a plant identification app to identify these plant forms as real plants, becomes something like a process of divination. This project tests and questions the veracity of the images we encounter online, while evoking the biological and artistic processes of generation and reproduction.
Still Life represents a timely dialogue between human and Artificial Intelligence. Use the sliders below to compare and contrast Still Life's AI-generated images with photographs of real botanical specimens!
Marsh Bellflower, from Still Life. © Anna Soper, 2022.
Campanula aparinoides. Robert H. Mohlenbrock. USDA NRCS, 1995. Wikimedia Commons.
Hazelnut, from Still Life. © Anna Soper, 2022.
Noisettes sur l'arbre. Dinkum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Bidens ferulifolia, from Still Life. © Anna Soper, 2022.
Bidens ferulifolia (Jacq.) DC. MNHN, Chagnoux S (2022). GBIF.
Rubus odoratus, from Still Life. © Anna Soper, 2022.
Rubus odoratus, Homer D. House, Wildflowers of New York. 1918.