Remixing AI & the Visual Image: A Novel Approach to Portraiture

Imagined depiction of Dessalines in a mural painting in Port-au-Prince.

The general approach to sampling a song involves taking a portion of sound from an audio track and processing it through a digital audio device such as a sampler. Then, the sample is chopped up, looped, or arranged in an entirely new way to create a new sound.

I recently took on a commission to create a portrait of Jean-Jacques Dessalines who was a leader of the Haitian Revolution and the first ruler of an independent Haiti. The problem was that there is no photograph of Dessalines, only previous artists’ imagined depictions of him. To use Deep Dream Generator you have to have start with a source or base photograph.

I looked to hip-hop to find a solution, esp. through sampling and remixing.

Generally, remixing means to reference, rework, or modify a version of a previously released song. Once I made a list of all the elements needed to create a composite image, I set about searching for reference photos.

Reference images for Dessalines

Next, I created a composite image, as the source photo for Deep Dream Generator. This is where the sampling and remixing concepts came into play. Even the stock image of the man was modified to enhance certain facial features and add sideburns.

My first composite image
Two versions of a later composite image using the same image style (different sideburns)

More compositing was done to merge multiple DDG outputs; each output image referenced a different image style. I added more accessories and used the image style transfer process (in DDG) to bring all of the elements together.

The final image

After finishing the Dessalines portrait I used a similar process to create a portrait of John Carlos for No Chaser magazine and the late Greg Tate. The latter is on view through March 30th in Brooklyn, NY. The Tate mural is over 20 feet tall and it took MoCADA workers 6 hours to install it.

My remixed John Carlos for No Chaser magazine.
Greg Tate’s selfie photo; MoCADA’s mural installation.

Currently, I’m working on a commissioned book cover and using these visual sampling and remixing techniques. The source photos are remixes and, instead of using sounds, I’m taking portions of images, compositing them, then processing them through an AI (artificial intelligence). The output is the same as previous works: the result is still a collaboration between me (human) and the machine. Just as artists imagined Dessalines we can now use digital technology to reimagine photography and collage.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.