Chinese designers use Midjourney’s AI to generate retro urban ‘photography’

Zhang Haijun via Midjourney


In fact, none of them are real. Zhang Haijun, a street photographer in Chongqing, generated these images with Midjourney, an artificial intelligence image creation program.

A number of artists and creators are generating nostalgic photographs of China with the help of AI. Even though these images still get some details wrong, like how many fingers humans have or what Chinese characters look like, they are realistic enough to fool and impress many social media followers, including me.

Retro AI artworks like Zhang’s have also caught the eye of Tong Bingxue, a collector of historical Chinese photographs. He reposted some of them on his popular Twitter account China in pictures last week.

These generated photos are indeed aesthetically pleasing, says Tong. They look sophisticated in terms of standard photography metrics, like definition, sharpness, saturation, and color tone. “When people look at things on social media, those (attributes) are the first things that grab attention. The authenticity of the photo comes second,” he says. Real historical photos, on the other hand, sometimes look amateurish or have material imperfections.

Zhang, the creator of the AI ​​images above, was born in Chongqing in 1992. He grew up near the Chongqing Iron and Steel Company, one of China’s oldest and largest steel factories, and remembers to have observed the workers when he was about seven years old. old. “When I was little, I often watched them come out of the factory during their break, sit on the ground, smoke a cigarette and look away. There were stories in their eyes,” he says.

When he turned that experience into an image-generating prompt for Midjourney, he was amazed by the results. “What the AI ​​generated — the look of resilience in their eyes and the way they’re dressed — looks exactly like what I described to it,” he says.

Today, Zhang pays more than $200 a year for Midjourney and uses it to generate new retro photography on different themes: rural weddings in the 90s, physical workers for hire waiting in the market, and the fashion of Chongqing street. Each time, he writes the prompts in Chinese, uses machine translation tools to convert them to English, feeds them into Midjourney, and spends about 20 minutes tweaking them to get the perfect result.

Chinese designers use Midjourney's AI to generate retro urban 'photography'
Zhang Haijun via Midjourney

Some artists working with AI are inspired by discovering real photos. Diaspora youth in the West have formed communities on Instagram where they source and curate historic photos to to reconstruct memories freed from a Western framework.


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