By Phil Jarratt
When artificial intelligence apps first hit the radar of Noosa’s extraordinary art photographer Paul Smith, he didn’t know what to make of them.
“In fact,” he tells Noosa Today, “I was a little bit of scared of the whole thing, didn’t know what to make of it, but I’ve always been one to embrace the new.”
Embracing the new might be an appropriate subhead for his brilliantly shocking Access All Areas exhibition, in collaboration with partner Samantha Anderson of Stone and Metal Jewellery, but in fact his AI-assisted re-imagining of famous people is inspired by his past life as a rock photographer for Rolling Stone magazine.
He says: “I always enjoyed showing people behind the scenes at a concert, places they couldn’t get to, like the dressing room. In a way the statement I’m making with this work is going one step further, showing them familiar people, celebrities, in a way they have never seen and could never imagine.”
Possibly Paul found inspiration even further back, when as a semi-professional skier and snowboarder based in the Swiss Alps, much in demand to star in action photo shoots for his sponsors, he had an epiphany.
He’d get behind the camera instead of in front of it. Professional photography looked like fun and it couldn’t be that hard, so he jumped right in.
Faced with an AI revolution within his chosen profession, he’s jumped right in again.
Paul says he spent about six months getting to know a variety of AI-derived digital art programs and working out what worked best for him in creating a base for his layered portraiture.
Six weeks ago he began the 20 pieces that make up Access All Areas, spending more than 60 hours on some of the portraits of celebrities ranging from royals – the late Queen Elizabeth and Duke of Edinburgh are there, alongside King Charles – to rock stars and screen sirens.
What was the most difficult?
“Oh, Paris Hilton for sure. All those dogs! I haven’t really done dogs, and all those eyes to try and get right! I know how to give people a certain look, using the veins in the eyelids, but I was trying to make the dogs look a bit quizzical, like what am I doing here?
“The way I use AI in this process is basically as a sketch you’d do prior to painting a portrait.
“I’ll program in all the information I want, like camera angle, lighting, how I want them to pose, what I want them wearing, and create a first draft. AI then spits out the basic guideline for what I want to create.
“Then I use other programs to size up the image and so on so I can paint the picture. The easy part is that initial composition. The hard part is the detail that follows, but it’s also the part I enjoy the most.”
“Probably Heath Ledger. It’s got a kind of solemn feel, the tortured artist.”
The images are confronting and compelling, the familiar subjects meeting your gaze with a riveting stare, their bodies ablaze with tattoos and opulent jewellery. The experience is bewitching, but what got this viewer in was the detail, wondering how much was real and how much imagined.
I asked Paul how he thought people might react to his “re-imagining” of beloved celebrities.
“Don’t know yet. Trying not to think about it until after we open. But I like to think I’ve portrayed them in a good way, in a way that they’d like, or at least see the humour in. I walked past a normal picture of the Queen the other day and I definitely prefer her with tatts!”
Samantha Anderson’s incredible jewellery will be featured in the exhibition alongside depictions of it in the portraits. She says: “This collection uses more faceted, polished and refined stone than my usual raw, uncut natural gems. These are going for a more regal, opulent, luxurious feel, but still pared back with organic hand-tooled silverwork.
“Inspired by the bold palette of the images, I’ve gone for more richly-coloured gems and jewels, as well as big and beautiful cut quartz. My work usually has a more rustic appeal but these are statement pieces with a twist. Think hand-forged meets Hollywood glamour.”
Access All Areas will be at Paul Smith Images Gallery, 16 Sunshine Beach Rd, Noosa Junction, from opening weekend 18-19 November, 12-6pm. Normal exhibition hours: 18 November – 9 December, Mon-Sat 10am-4pm. Phone 0405 834 864.