Above: “data privacy” by stockcatalog licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

CHANSU: Exploring the Surreal World of Abstract Photography Through the Lens of AI

SuperRare Labs Editorial Director Luke Whyte asks Robert LeBlanc about GAN, his inspiration for CHANSU, and collaboration with Transient Labs.

May 3, 2023 Art / Artist Conversations

10 months ago

Robert LeBlanc is a renowned artist and documentary photographer who has taken an embedded approach to telling important stories about under-documented communities across the United States. Some of his well known projects include GLORYLAND, where he spent five years photographing the sermons, culture, and people of the rattlesnake handling Holiness church, “The House of The Lord Jesus”, in the quiet town of Squire, West Virginia, Unlawful Conduct, for which he spent six years documenting the beauty and suffering bred from skateboarding street culture, and MOON DUST, for which he spent four years shooting the lives and work of hotshot firefighters in California and Montana. For his latest project, CHANSU, Robert has turned his lens in a different direction; melding the use of traditional post-photography software with the output of Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) technology to produce a wholly unique abstract, post-photography series. 

SuperRare Labs Editorial Director Luke Whyte asks Robert LeBlanc about GAN, his inspiration for CHANSU, and collaboration with Transient Labs.

Luke Whyte: Let’s jump right into CHANSU. Can you talk a little bit about the vision and goals behind the project?

Robert LeBlanc: I wanted to create a world that balances the lines of surrealism and fiction. This project focuses on a more contemporary aesthetic that encourages viewers to use their imagination as they experience this world. Is it photography? Is it an abstract painting? Or is it a digital rendering? I want the viewers to feel like they have entered a world where all these mediums are possible. I get a cathartic experience when I’m exposed to these images, and I find it so inspiring, so in the end, I’m hoping viewers have this same experience as well.

From CHANSU series, Robert LeBlanc, 2023

As artists, we constantly evolve; I want to be mindful of this. I also believe that artists need to fit in the niche they have been in, and I think this mindset can suffocate the creative process and the evolution of one’s work.

— Robert LeBlanc

LW: What’s the scope of the project? How many images are being minted this week and how many will there be in total?

RL: This body of work is quite vast, and it’s been something I have been working on for a couple of years and have spent a lot of time crafting the style that it is today. I have developed 100 images I see as a fully immersive exhibition and a book project, with a limited number released as NFTs, both dynamic and still. The final number has not been decided yet, but it will be minimal compared to the size of the body of work.

LW: This is something new for you, correct? What appealed to you about this type of project and why embark on it at this time? 

RL: Yes, I have been working with GAN imagery for two years and am highly inspired by its endless capabilities. My photography works have been increasingly focused on a more surreal and fictional landscape, with much of my current inspiration from the contemporary Japanese black-and-white photography genre. Artists such as Daidō Moriyama and Kikuji Kawada have substantially influenced this new world of photography I’m developing. As artists, we constantly evolve; I want to be mindful of this. I also believe that artists need to fit in the niche they have been in, and I think this mindset can suffocate the creative process and the evolution of one’s work. What I am attracted to now is much different than ten years ago in my early twenties. I want to embrace this evolution of my creative journey. Between CHANSUand another project, Tin Lizards, which I’m currently creating, I feel like it’s the right time to start exploring this desire to create a more drenched monochrome surreal world.

LW: Can you talk a little bit about the techniques behind the artworks? How did you go about creating them? 

RL: I started promoting images through the GAN technology, slowly crafting a style that felt right to me, which was a long a difficult road; CHANSU focused a lot on the mindset of embracing the element of chance, which I think is a constant dance between the artist and creating within the contemporary and abstract space. It is an organic flow of creativity, and you enjoy the process and become vulnerable in the experience. After building the foundation, I would take the images and process them with a more traditional post-editing photography software which I was more familiar with. This was an arena where I could be more purposeful and deliberate, taking the elements of chance that I was so open to in the first step and then honing in the result with purpose and reason for the final step.

From CHANSU series, Robert LeBlanc, 2023

LW: What excites you about GAN technology? Why did you choose to work with it and where would you like to see its role in art, and AI more generally, go in the future? 

RL: It’s the feeling of the unknown and the ability to tap one’s imagination into a visual result. Since using AI as a tool, I have felt that the world of possibilities has opened up immensely, and as a creative, this can be extremely inspiring. I first used it with GLORYLAND, which is a very traditional documentary project. Still, within the church, you always heard the fables from the bible that illustrated things I could never photograph but were very prominent in the landscape of the characters I was documenting. I used GAN to create illustrations for these stories, and I’m pleased with how that helped polish and add another layer to the project. There are countless ways to use AI as a tool, and I find that very inspiring and exciting but also a bit terrifying.

LW: You’ve referred to the project as creating a world that is both familiar and strange, do you see parallels between this statement and today’s world more generally? Particularly with the embrace of AI and digital reality? 

RL: Absolutely! We have entered a stage in human existence where our ambitions and ability to develop technologies have created a new world where we can’t tell if humans or machines create something. I don’t believe we exist in a physical world separate from a digital one. Our current moment as humans is undeniably strange, and I don’t know where this road will lead. AI is moving at lightning speeds, and that is a scary thought. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash becomes less of a fictional novel and more of a prophetic warning more and more to me every day.

LW: You’ve said the project draws inspiration from contemporary Japanese aesthetics, what do you mean by that and how is it reflected in the artworks? 

RL: I have been gravitating toward this style of photography, where grain, rich black, and texture are all embraced to create an emotionally invigorating image. In documentary work, the way an image is formed is much more literal, and I have always considered composition the most essential quality. But in the contemporary landscape, emotion takes the lead, and I have been finding this world very freeing. I’ve always looked up to the level of thought, attention to detail, and purpose you see in almost everything from Japan. Photography is certainly no exception to these attributes for them, either. One project that has been my biggest inspiration for CHANSU is Daido Moriyama’s Bye Bye Photography. This book broke all the rules of photography at that time, embracing chaos and chance. It’s a true masterpiece.

I have been gravitating toward this style of photography, where grain, rich black, and texture are all embraced to create an emotionally invigorating image. In documentary work, the way an image is formed is much more literal, and I have always considered composition the most essential quality.

— Robert LeBlanc

From CHANSU series, Robert LeBlanc, 2023

LW: How did chance play a role in the production of these artworks and how did it feel for you to turn over much of the result of your work to fate? 

RL: Chance was the driving force in the initial stage of artwork production. It’s impossible not to embrace chance when working with AI. I used vague and not specific prompts, which resulted in me knowing that what I could get from this machine was a complete gamble. By doing this, I had to let go of the controlling side of myself and embrace fate. I learned a lot about myself while creating this body of work, and patience and trust are essential elements of its development and end result.

LW: You worked with Transient Labs to put together this project, correct? What was their role in CHANSU? 

RL: Yes! They added layers of dynamic qualities to this series I couldn’t. Ultimately, the result is fantastic and embraces every element of this project. As I said earlier, patience was essential. Part of our dynamic process is watching four images dissolve into each other over a length of eighty minutes, it’s a slow and almost unnoticeable process that takes a lot of patience to experience, but if you look away for a few minutes and then turn back, it becomes a whole different piece. They did an incredible job of turning this project into a more dynamic and immersive experience.

LW: I love this idea of gradually dissolving images that recompose themselves over 80 minutes. Where did the idea come from and why experiment with the approach? 

RL: I wanted to create an experience for the viewers to see the pieces interact. I see these displayed on a large scale in an exhibition space where they morph over time, always giving the experience something new, ever-evolving, similar to our environment and how this technology is ever-evolving. I also wanted to play on the speed of the way the world is moving at such a drastic pace. In return, I tried to slow down time, making the viewers sit and digest the artwork at a slower and more deliberate pace.

From CHANSU series, Robert LeBlanc, 2023

LW: Looking back to some of your previous work, can you talk a little bit about how you got started as a photographer through skateboarding in LA? 

RL: I like to say skating saved my life. It was a way to expose me to so many different worlds, art, and music. Skating was the stepping point for me creatively and made me more curious about the world in general. I started taking photos when I was out skating with my friends at an early age, and to me, it was the perfect marriage and a means for me to not only experience the world around me but also document that world as well. Skaters have always had a unique view of their environment and are conscious of details most don’t see. 

LW: What’s next for you from here? What projects do you have brewing? 

RL: More experimentation and me trying to evolve my craft in inspiring ways. I’m currently working on a project that documents train trips through America in a surreal and almost gothic aesthetic. I’m excited to jump more into these body of works that blur the line between fiction and reality

Explore CHANSU on SuperRare Now.

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Luke Whyte

Luke Whyte is SuperRare's Editorial Director.

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