Despite growing interest in artificial intelligence-generated art from bots like Dall•E, they haven’t really grabbed my attention. Until now.
I was talking recently to my colleague Thomas Czerniawski about AI-generated images, and happened to mention in passing that I’m co-leading a group of students on a trip to Antarctica this fall. Shortly after, he sent me some Antarctica-inspired images that were generated by the Midjourney bot. I must confess — I was blown away.
Do a quick Google search on AI-generated art, and you’re likely to be inundated with reams of fantastical images and psychedelic illustrations, along with the occasional horse-riding astronaut — all very impressive, but not my cup of tea.
What I hadn’t appreciated until that recent conversation though was just how powerful these bots are becoming as co-creators of images that stimulate the imagination, and that reveal perspectives on the world that may otherwise be hard to come by.
That conversation already has me exploring how working with AI art generators can inform and inspire creative visions of the future. But for starters, I thought I’d share my initial “training-wheels” foray into Antarctica-inspired images generated using Midjourney.
To start with, these are some of the images that Thomas sent me and that got me intrigued — the prompts used to generate them are included below the images (how these prompts are crafted has a large impact on what is produced):.
Prompt: an old grainy black and white photo of an arctic expedition team dogsled team abandoning their ship the Endurance in the ice storm cold freezing frozen dramatic
Prompt: an old grainy black and white photo portrait of an arctic explorer tired beard covered in ice expedition gear hood frost bitten nose and cheeks close up dramatic
Prompt: orange arctic expedition tents set up in the tundra Antarctica icebergs dramatic
Inspired by these images and the upcoming trip to Antarctica, I was fascinated by what was possible here — both in terms of connecting with the past and imagining the future.
My bigger goal was to explore approaches to envisioning the future that spark the imagination. But just for starters, Antarctica proved to be a pretty good training ground.
The following images follow a rough arc from re-visiting the past, to capturing the present, and finally to imagining the future. While some are photo-realistic, many are not — and this was intentional, as I’m interested in how artistic representations and interpretations can influence and augment how we see and think about the world.
Mainly though, I was just having fun as I explored how different combinations of prompts and phrasing led to different images — a true AI-human collaboration!
Prompt: Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition runs into problems.
I thought I’d start with the Early 1900’s Antarctic expeditions, and Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914 expedition in particular. If you look closely at the image, it isn’t realistic — the ship is wrong, perspectives are out, and the placement of people isn’t right. Yet it still evokes the feel and atmosphere of photos taken by the expedition’s photographer Frank Hurley.
Prompt: a dramatic old grainy black and white photo where Antarctic explorers are leaving the ice-bound ship Endurance with their dogs, sleds, and supplies.
The prompt is very similar to the one used by Thomas above — I was interested to see how similar the resulting images were. The verdict — a lot of similarities in subject matter, framing and feel, but still two distinct images. I especially like the vignetting around the image!
Prompt: old Antarctic expeditions in snow storms.
This prompt was far more open than the previous ones, and I was intrigued to see what Midjourney produced. The result definitely has an abstract and even other-worldly quality to it — note the ship masts half-embedded in the ice! But it still captures an essence of exploring a harsh environment at a time when technological capabilities were limited.
Prompt: Shackleton’s crew plays on the ice
I I love the surreal result from this prompt. The image begins to cross over from reality to a dream-like representation of a possible scene — very arty! It’s verging on the abstract, but in that abstraction it encourages the viewer to develop new narratives around what they see. This, to me, is where Midjourney starts to come into its own as a tool for exploring graphical representations of ideas that further open up the imagination and lead to new places.
Prompt: Antarctica research station
This image was intended to bring the series up to the present, but what resulted is deliciously futuristic — an image of what an Antarctica research station might be like!
Prompt: Camping in Antarctica
Sticking with a research/exploration theme, I was interested in seeing what Midjourney would do with a simpler version of camping prompt Thomas used in the image toward the top of this post. At this point I stated to wonder whether the Midjourney bot had cottoned on to my affinity with dramatic scenery and vignetting around images — I like this one a lot!
Prompt: A study abroad cruise to the Antarctic peninsula
At this point I thought it would be interesting to look forward a little and use prompts relevant to the up-coming student trip to Antarctica. I must confess that this one surprised me in a quite serendipitous way — this is not at all how I imagined an image of an Antarctic cruise, but I love the juxtaposition of majestic mountains, ice, sea, and a small ship that’s utterly dwarfed by them.
Prompt: Antarctica cruise ship
In an attempt to get something more cruise-like, I tried being more specific with the prompt — and Midjourney obliged.
Prompt: a photo of a group of students visiting Antarctica
Buoyed on by the success of the last image, I thought I’d see whether Midjourney could provide a peek into what we might expect this coming December. I may have pushed things too far — the image is a tad on the disturbing side … but it does invite the viewer to start weaving stories around what they might be seeing, which is great from the perspective of stimulating the imagination. (I do want to know what happened to the right hand students legs, and those on the left are distinctly wraith-like!)
Prompt: Antarctica in the distant future where climate change has melted much of the ice and the environment is much warmer
Finally, I wanted to see how Midjourney handled extrapolating into the future — which of course is where I’m interested in taking this. The image above is very strongly influenced by how I ended up crafting the prompt (this was the result of several iterations), but is nevertheless a sufficiently different perspective on future-Antarctica to make you think.
I must confess to being impressed by what’s possible with the current batch of AI Art bots — at least if Midjourney is anything to go by. Admittedly, I’m left with a strong sense that the resulting images are like dreams — creative, fantastical, odd, revealing, but ultimately a mashup of what we already know, and unable to go beyond this.
Whether AI-generated art will break through this barrier, I don’t know. But even at this point, it’s a powerful stimulant for creative and novel insights.
Which is exactly where I’m hoping to take things next as I play around with future-focused prompts.
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