"I drew up a very simple scenario, a kind of fable in which Midjourney's appearance is represented by an explosion comparable to an atomic blast that would have destroyed everything in existing photography."
Artist: Eric Tabuchi
Project: The Third Atlas
Book published by Poursuite
Nicolas Blanchadell : What sparked the idea to start this new approach with The Third Atlas?
Eric Tabuchi : For some time now, I've been monitoring the evolution of auto-generated image programs, without being convinced by the results they were producing. It was with the release of version 5 of Midjourney last February that a turning point was set. From that moment on, I felt I had to take an interest in it, as it raised so many questions about the evolution of photography, but also because I felt it was important to embrace this mutation rather than undergo it.
So I quickly thought it would be interesting to take Atlas of Forms, a book published in 2017 and long out of print, and make a version of it revisited by an artificial intelligence. It was with this idea in mind that I proposed to the publisher Poursuite that we embark on the production of a book that would be significant in terms of its size: 320 pages in a 20 x 29 cm format, to be released in October of the same year. This made the experiment very real, very concrete, and as soon as the decision was taken, despite my many other occupations, I plunged into its production.
N.B : Is there a specific goal or intention behind The Third Atlas, for yourself as well as for your audience?
E.T : For me, it was primarily a question of evaluating the Midjourney tool, to see what possibilities it offered. At the same time, I wanted to find out if everything we were hearing in the media was actually true, and to what extent. I wanted to make up my own mind and share the results of my research.
However, I soon realized that using this new tool raised a lot of questions, and naturally the book would tell the story of this exploration.
It was very important to me that The Third Atlas should keep a critical eye on the problems posed by AIs. So I drew up a very simple scenario, a kind of fable in which Midjourney's appearance is represented by an explosion comparable to an atomic blast that would have destroyed everything in existing photography. In fact, for a community of initially overwhelmed survivors, the event quickly gives way to the need to rebuild. This led to the reinvention of light, perspective and color. Then follows a long mimetic period, during which the survivors try to reproduce the world as it was before, but without really succeeding. The last third of the book shows how the survivors, emancipated from the past, are trying to create a new photographic language, one that would be the language of artificial intelligences, or at least one that would emerge from their use. It is this journey - a long crossing in 660 images from one era to another - that I would like to share, in the hope that it will enable everyone to see the diversity of the territories covered. It is also my secret hope that this book, a pioneer in its own way as it advances into unknown territory, will be one of the first to bring back images of this new world.
N.B : You are now adding an extra creative process to the archival work you’ve been doing for years. Can you tell us more about it? What inspires you to create a picture and write specific words on Midjourney?
E.T : Personally, it's a completely different approach to the appropriation work I've been doing with images from the Internet, or to the documentary approach of the Atlas des Régions Naturelles project I've been working on with Nelly Monnier for several years, which is a fairly classic approach to the photographic medium, even if the ARN as a whole is an innovative adventure in many other ways. For the moment, as I said, it's still a work in progress, and I'm looking forward with some impatience to seeing what the reactions to the book will be. It's not without a certain amount of trepidation, because AIs are very divisive. A number of people have seen this experience as a kind of betrayal of photography, when on the contrary, it's about exploring its potential and also its limits.
The creative process with Midjourney is, it has to be said, captivating. For me, it's a huge game, with riddles to be solved everywhere. It's a very complex tool to master. The inspiration for all this comes only later, and is the result of a good complementarity between the machine and the human behind it.
N.B : While staying in a similar aesthetic as ARN, we can see some new directions such as adding people or interior photography. Was it part of your research work to distance yourself from ARN?
E.T : Yes, very quickly it seemed to me that one of the major contributions of Midjourney was the possibility of integrating the human figure into my work. With Midjourney, the right to the human image is abolished, opening up a whole new territory for the photographer, who can use his or her imagination as he or she sees fit. From that moment on, something extremely disturbing happens, and that is that suddenly you can, like a novelist or painter, imagine and create characters, putting them in situations without ever owing them anything. This new freedom seems to me to be one of the most fascinating aspects of Midjourney. The same goes for interiors, which belong to the sphere of the intimate, and which I've always steered clear of for reasons that are not far removed from what's possible. In this way, The Third Atlas opens the door to fiction as a complementary register to the more documentary ARN.
N.B : There is this contrast between the endless freedom of creation given by your computer, and the ‘freedom’ one could feel by being constantly on the road. New technologies are also growing to make us travel while staying at home (cf Apple vision pro ‘Immersive Environments’). Did your relationship to these technologies evolve while creating this book?
E.T : I don't want to oppose a naturalistic approach to photography to a technological one. For me, these are two distinct ways, each with its own characteristics, of elaborating a vision and constructing a narrative. But in the end, it's important for these two paths to meet, for both to produce images capable of dialogue.
As for freedom, that's very important to me, the freedom to choose, without prejudice, the right tool for the story you want to tell. What I fear is that we have to choose sides, that a kind of photographic fundamentalism starts to exclude this innovation.
N.B : While ARN is limited by what is physically available to photograph in France, Midjourney opens the door to endless choices of landscape, culture, real or invented. Do you, and how, restrict yourself to certain areas/criterias?
E.T : Infinity is perhaps the worst and most illusory of limits. The infinity proposed by Midjourney is a diversity of appearances. In truth, many of the images generated by Mj resemble each other, and there's a uniformity in the flow of auto-generated images that is the antithesis of infinity. In this sense, I'm rather reluctant to consider AI as self-determining. On the contrary - and this is certainly my biggest objection - I believe that artificial intelligence, which is a statistical tool, is also a normative tool.
N.B : Is it going to change your approach to your more 'regular' archival work?
E.T : I don't think so, except perhaps that now I look at reality with new eyes. Sometimes, when I go for a walk, fragments of the most ordinary reality seem to come out of a prompt. But above all, the experience of travelling in physical space, with all the sensations it brings, seems irreplaceable.
N.B : We are referring to our magazine as ‘slow photography’, as a desire to slow down the creative process to have a more intentional or meaningful approach, and not only focusing on an aesthetic. Can you relate to this and in what way ?
E.T : Yes, that's right. In my work over the last 20 years, I've always advocated the use of slowness as much as proximity: "Less speed, less distance" being my motto, so to speak. I'm firmly convinced that photography, like wine, needs time to develop its flavors. When I started the ARN project, I knew from the outset that this adventure would take us years, if not decades. Likewise, for the publication of ARN, 30 volumes are planned over a period of 15 years, which is not at all the timeframe of most current projects. The Third Atlas, whose future developments I cannot predict, is part of a series of works whose vocation is to form a whole that will be as much a history of this century's photographic techniques as a personal adventure whose coherence and relevance are largely due to the slow pace of reflection.
© Eric Tabuchi
interview : Nicolas Blanchadell