The Year That Was: A Selection of PPD Highlights from 2019

By David Schonauer   Monday December 23, 2019

Remember “fake news?” That was then.

This year saw the rise of fake faces.

Last January we reported on new technology using artificial intelligence to create very realistic photographic portraits of people who do not exist. As The Verge noted at the time, “we’re getting scarily good at creating fake people.”

Of all the technological developments we spotlighted in 2019, the advent of AI-generated people was among the most consequential. Even alt-right media site Breitbart was concerned over the implications of the research, warning in a headline that the new AI tech marked the “End of Photography as Evidence."

The news came from a paper released by researchers at the tech company Nvidia, who reported that they were able to copy the “styles” of source faces onto destination faces, creating blends that have copied features but which look like entirely new people. Over the course of the year, we continued to report on the use of AI to create “deepfake” videos of celebrities and politicians.

Today we revisit the story, as we look back at Pro Photo Daily highlights from 2019 — from reports on trends to spotlights of exhibitions and personal projects from readers. We’ll be sharing more highlights in the days ahead.

1. The Rise of Fake Faces

A startling paper from Nvidia researchers included hyper-realistic color faces, above, none of them real.  “If you didn’t know they were fake, could you tell the difference?” asked The Verge. Just a few years ago, the best AI tech could produce were crude black-and-white faces. Where, we wondered, will it go from here?

2. Jim Hughes, Photographer, Editor, and Author of Smith Biography, Dies at 81

Jim Hughes, editor of Camera Arts magazine and author of Shadow and Substance: The Life and Work of an American Photographer, the definitive biography of W. Eugene Smith, died in late December, 2018, at his home in Camden, Maine. He was 81. PPD learned of his death through Hughes’s longtime friend David Lyman, founder of the Maine Photographic Workshop. “Jim knew a little bit about everything and a lot about a lot—he was a student and a scholar of photography, and he had a great mind and a great memory,” noted Michael C. Johnston at The Online Photographer, a blog that Hughes contributed to.

3. Ansel Adams Is Cool Again

America, we noted in January, is rediscovering the most iconic name in photography. “Until recently, I would have said that nothing could be more boring right now than looking at photographs by Ansel Adams,” wrote art critic Sebastian Smee at The Washington Post. What changed Smee’s mind was “Ansel Adams: Then and Now,” an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which paired his work with images by contemporary photographers. At The Wall Street Journal, Robert B. Woodward declared that the exhibition had made Adams cool again. The exhibition revealed how human intervention has changed purple mountains’ majesty, added The New York Times.

4. Tara Wray Channels The Pain of Depression Into Art

For Tara Wray, photography became a tool to fight depression. “Just forcing myself to get out of my head and using the camera to do that is, in a way, a therapeutic tool,"  Wray, a photographer and filmmaker based in central Vermont, told NPR. "It's like exercise: You don't want to do it, you have to make yourself do it, and you feel better after you do.” Wray’s use of photography to channel the pain of depression resulted in her book Too Tired for Sunshine. “Some of the images show a stark beauty, others a raw loneliness, and some capture hints that the world may be slightly off-kilter,” noted NPR. We also showed how other photographers channeled the pain of depression into art.

5.  Tabitha Soren Shows How Technology Touches Us, and How We Touch It

Modern society is only now coming to terms with how much we leave behind when we go online — information about our identities, our interests, our travels, and of course our shopping habits. But we also leave behind physical traces of ourselves in the form of greasy fingerprints left on the screens of our smartphones and tablets. These trails, evidence of our humanness, were the subject of fine-art photographer Tabitha Soren’s intriguing series “Surface Tension,” on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

6. A Call for Ethics in Modern Nature Photography

It’s a thrilling time to be a nature photographer, thanks to advancements in camera capabilities that only a couple decades ago were beyond our imagination. “Shared GPS coordinates, drones, thermal imaging, camera traps, photo metadata, online forums, and other tools inform us on the location of elusive, charismatic wildlife, allowing us to close in on them quickly and in numbers,” noted wildlife photographer Melissa Groo. But, she added, the possibilities for artifice and manipulation have also grown. In February, Goo called for a new era of ethics in nature photography.

7.  Leland Bobbe Photographs NYC's Hard Hat Workers

The towers of Manhattan rise, fall, and are replaced with taller towers, like trees in a forest striving for sunlight. Nature builds forests, but in the city it’s people who do the work. And those people wear hardhats. It was the hats that first caught the attention of New York-based photographer Leland Bobbé, who, we noted, began taking pictures of construction workers at lunchtime, when they came down from their lofty perches for food. The result was his series “Hardhats NYC.”

8. Documenting the Bomber Jackets of WWII

The A-2 bomber jackets of World War II aviators tell stories. Often the flyers had the jacket hand-painted with elaborate images symbolizing missions flown, unit crests, enemy aircraft shot down, and more. “The multitude of designs and colors created is mind-boggling,” said John Slemp, an Atlanta-based commercial photographer specializing in aviation imagery who has been photographing the vintage bomber jackets for a series called “Even Captains Prayed,” which we featured in March. The painted jackets, once a morale booster, are now coveted collectors items that speak to time when bomber crews faced daunting odds for survival.

9.  How Lyme Disease Taught Robert Buelteman About Nature

Robert Buelteman understands the power of nature. The San Francisco Bay Area-based artist has developed a unique cameraless method of photographing flowers, leaves, and other specimens collected from the world around him, using electric current and fiber and optic cables to “light paint” the objects with extraordinary beauty. Earlier this year his work went on view at the Art Ventures gallery in Menlo Park, CA — “the heart of the Silicon Valley,” he noted in an interview. The exhibition represented a comeback for Buelteman, whose career was waylaid for years by Lyme disease.

10. Derek Shapton Rides the Last Bus From Saskatoon

After Greyhound announced that it would end all bus service in Canada west of Ontario, Toronto-based photographer Derek Shapton pitched an idea to The Walrus, a Canadian magazine that publishes long-form journalism, cultural criticism and fiction. Shapton proposed boarding a Greyhound bus for its last run from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to Brandon, Manitoba, and documenting the little towns along the way. “The photos I ended up making were not so much the story of a bus trip as much as a topographic meditation and elegy for the loss of a way of engaging with the Canadian landscape,” he told us.
From Tabita Soren

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