For almost two decades, Blake Wood has plied his craft in analog photography, with candid portraiture that mines the intimacy, empathy and turmoil of human relationships. Now experimenting with post-photography—creating photo-realistic images using AI tools—he explores those same themes through a queer perspective. He tells writer Joe Zadeh about his NFT series “Visions & Memories,” which introduces us to characters from queer love stories inspired by his own life experiences.
Spend enough time in the world of NFTs, and you’ll notice that there’s a bold and broad new art movement causing a stir. It has come to be known as “post-photography,” and while its proponents differ over their definitions of what exactly it is, it can be understood in its crudest terms as: photography created without a camera, lights or crew. Instead, the latest versions of text-to-image AI tools like DALL-E 2 or Midjourney are utilized to create photorealistic imagery from written prompts. What makes this movement so fascinating is that many of its key pioneers are artists who are accomplished in the realm of traditional photography, and are now using their technical and aesthetic expertise and knowledge of art history to carefully craft prompts which result in images that stand in strange parallel to their usual work.
One of the movement’s most influential creators is the New York-based multi-disciplinary artist Blake Wood, who has spent his photographic career capturing the intimacy, empathy and turmoil of human relationships. One of the many relationships captured was his close friendship with the late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. In 2018, he published a monograph with the luxury book publisher TASCHEN: an intimate visual diary of a two year period they spent together. One particularly charismatic image still stands out to him. “She's standing on a rock in St Lucia—really strong, really confidently, fully embodied,” he says. “I think it sums up how she saw herself and how she wanted to be seen in the world.”
It was while casually exploring the possibilities of a web3 NFT product called Eponym in 2021 that Winehouse came back to the forefront of his mind. Eponym was an early text-to-image platform, which, for a limited period of time, allowed users to mint their creations as NFTs. “I was racking my brain because there were only a few hours left to mint, so I ended up just typing in one word ‘amy.’” The tool created a hand-drawn image of a human face that felt eerily evocative to Wood. “It seemed like a nod from my subconscious; I knew I needed to lean more into AI,” he says. “When DALL-E 2 became available—and it was possible to create photorealistic images that I would have traditionally achieved with a camera—I realised this was an art movement that was about to happen.”
Prompting (the act of writing the small text that determines the image created by the AI tool) has become a deeply personal, private and magical experience for Wood, like textual incantations. It’s something he has perfected over time and, for that reason, is fairly tight-lipped about how exactly he prompts. “It’s almost sacred the way I do it,” he said, “I really lean into emotion, life experience and memories.” Alongside this, he includes technical notes on elements like composition, lighting, and stylistic references.
DALL-E 2, he tells me, can be highly emotional if you know how to speak to it. “It really loves poetic and wildly creative compositions,” he says. “It can feel dead behind the eyes if you’re just generating images and not thinking about your prompts, but I’m very careful and intentional. It's very easy to create an image of a human but is there life behind the eyes? Is there feeling and depth in there?”
This new approach culminated in his latest virtual exhibition, “Visions and Memories,” a collection of AI-generated portrait photography that was minted and sold as NFTs. Created from a queer perspective, these ethereal and hyperrealistic works symbolise moments in Wood’s emotional history and glimpses of his desires for the future. The image “Pink 1” features a figure with piercing blue eyes, fluffy pink hair and a white pearl necklace, staring down the barrel of a camera—it feels reminiscent of a Nan Goldin portrait.
“That image was my first go at using that prompt,” he said. “I got my prompt really concise and it produced it really quickly. Other images can take much longer...but I approach it the same way I approach film photography: if I'm not getting it in the first few frames, I'm not gonna keep going. Some people prompt thousands of images just to get one.”
In another image, titled “Break Up,” he used the therapeutic potential of AI to reprocess a traumatic memory. “It’s a self-portrait of me during a difficult break-up I went through. The break up happened in LA on the street, but in the image I placed us in Vermont, where I grew up. And instead of the person who broke up with me walking away, I’m walking away from them, down a dirt road just like the one near my childhood home, and I’m walking towards light,” he said.
Wood doesn’t see post-photography as something that will replace traditional photography, and he continues to work in analog. It is simply a new technical innovation that will live within the field. “When I look back on the history of art and photography, there are only a handful of photographers who were able to capture queer love in its authentic state, yet there are endless amounts of traditional relationships captured in imagery,” he says. “I think AI can open up doors for artists to create images that might not otherwise exist, and I think that's very exciting.”