The best AI trick yet catches our attention
One thing about to inhabit a face is that you can never really see it like the others. Mirrors give us an inverted image. The photographs freeze us in time from bizarre angles and, at times, in unforgiving detail. Looking into a phone’s camera, preening to check our makeup or our dark circles, gives us a hyperreal mirror, but that too is distorted and inverted. Even video doesn’t quite capture us for ourselves, for the simple reason that we can’t observe ourselves objectively. We look too closely; maybe we are judgmental, or maybe we are grateful to look a certain way. We can’t just take stock of what we might look like to someone else.
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This is part of the appeal of portraiture. It is not the objective reality of who we are but a version of how someone else sees us, translated onto the page or canvas. It always amazes and moves me to think, in art museums, that before photography, the only simple way to see a static image of oneself was through the brush, the pen or the chisel, necessarily filtered by the creative intelligence of another person. Standing in front of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Gretchen Osgood Warren and her daughter, we see not only what they might have looked like, but the specific things Sargent saw: the bright pink of Warren’s cheeks, the reverie of the her daughter’s expression, the silvery pink of her dress, the candles behind them fading into paint strokes in the background. The way her shawl trails on the floor, gray and vague, is something only Sargent could have seen and painted.
Cameras have gradually made it mundane to see images of ourselves, but there’s always something magical about having another person give you that kind of sustained creative attention. This is partly why people pay for walking caricatures and commission oil portraits of themselves. There is a real pleasure in seeing how someone else sees us, feeling a strange, perhaps tenuous connection to their artistic vision. Or, perhaps, with their attention: a portrait, after all, is the result of an intense aesthetic concentration, and what could be more flattering than having this concentration fixed on oneself?
Lensa borrows, impoverished, from this appeal. But of course, these images are not how another person sees us. They are the naked eye of inhuman intelligence, mathematically combining features, lips and nose and eyes added together into an approximation of you. There isn’t, I think, any real potential for beauty here – not because the images are algorithmically produced (I believe it’s possible for computers to create compelling works of art), but because avatars don’t seem to me to satisfy either realism or art. They live in between and are mostly good at evaluating, again, versions of what we might look like. Their style mimics fantasy characters, comics, and heroes, imagining you in a flattering spotlight – but even then they fail to specifically elevate you, instead slipping your image into generic visual tropes. You could be anyone, and in fact you are!
The basic appeal of apps like this is, of course, our own personal involvement. Much has already been said about how the internet fuels self-obsession by pushing us to perform for others: on Facebook, people announce mundane developments in life and political opinions; on Instagram, we interrupt our fun to show others how much fun we are having; on Twitter, we exploit our personal lives for laughs. But there’s also something to be said for how digital tools can function as playful mirrors, fueling a totally private fascination with ourselves. I can’t help staring at Lensa’s hundreds of semi-real versions of my face. (Actually, 110: There was a bonus 10 “Holiday Spirit” styles, including one in which I stared sullenly while wearing a Santa hat.) I haven’t shared these avatars with anyone. others. Even those who posted their own only shared a fraction of what was produced. These images seemed meant to be amazed in private. They’re like the lists people post of the best times of the year, or memories of dreams – things that, even when shared with others, are always more interesting to ourselves.