Clay Cook’s trippy portraits are the perfect combination of AI and real photography

Apr 1, 2023

Liz Wolf

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Clay Cook’s trippy portraits are the perfect combination of AI and real photography

Apr 1, 2023

Liz Wolf

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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When conceptualizing an abstract set design for a photoshoot, a photographer might come up with several backdrops and light techniques that they’ll cycle through over the course of a day. But what if you could speed up the process so that each background cycled at half a second, with a dynamic strobe light set-up that rotates between four different color zones? You wouldn’t have just five or even ten scenarios to work with, you’d be generating endless possibilities for unique images that change in composition, color, and light — and you’d do it in half the time.

Photographer Clay Cook is known for his use of bold color and striking portraits, which together laid the foundation for this exciting project. Every spring the KMAC Contemporary Art Museum hosts a big fundraiser fashion show, KMAC Couture. As a board member for the event, Clay was asked to capture promotional portraits of the avant-garde designs. This time around, he took an abstract approach to his portraiture, by generating one-of-a-kind backgrounds with AI (artificial intelligence) tool Midjourney. Through a combination of other techniques, Clay created his own works of art, which appear futuristic, dynamic, and truly out-of-this-world.

With this project, I wanted to start exploring AI in a way that doesn’t replace what I do as a photographer but instead uses it as a tool to enhance what I do.

As the event is hosted by the city’s premier contemporary art museum, KMAC Couture celebrates the integration of art, performance, and design. The fashion show provides young designers with the opportunity to showcase their work in front of potential sponsors, while also getting to network with some of the biggest creative names Louisville has to offer. For Clay, the event is a nice chance to catch up with other photographers, filmmakers, stylists, and artists that also acts as a kick-off to the Kentucky Derby season.

I’ve always loved going to KMAC Couture because it’s just a fun event with all my creative colleagues where we shut down the main street in Louisville. Everyone dresses in white and the designs really come to life in contrast to that.

ai real photography clay cook

Each year it seems as though the artists push the boundaries of costumes, sculpture, ready-to-wear fashion, and avant-garde creations, and this year would be no exception. The curatorial concept for the 2023 event would center around inspirations from literature and books, where the source material provides endless possibilities for creative design. For Clay, his own inspiration came from the colors and backgrounds of comic books and movies, like Wonder Woman, Thor, and Black Panther, along with graphic novels like Watchmen and Ghost World. He even touched upon eccentric personalities in fashion and design like Southern Gothic and Jazz Age. With all these ideas swirling in his head, Clay needed a way to streamline this process that didn’t take away from his conceptual vision.

I was seeing Midjourney hit the internet in a really creative way and hadn’t yet found my own way of playing around with the tool. When this project fell in my lap it felt like the perfect opportunity to start experimenting with AI.

Clay’s process began on Midjourney, an online platform that creates images from textual descriptions. He started by testing different prompts to generate abstract images and settled upon a combination of words and feelings to produce his desired designs. While he admits he could have done this through stock imagery and CGI, the AI software saved him time and energy as it composed the images itself and expedited that process. That being said, Clay spent over two days creating over 200 unique abstract backgrounds to use for this photoshoot.

ai real photography combo

You really have to think about the language you want to provide the tool with, and it took me several tries to understand how to frame the prompts. I ended up with a combination of specific words and feeling words, such as: abstract, dye, delta, water, fuzz, blur, sparks, embers, motions, universe, space, distressed, dark, sky, cloud, moody, explosions, etc. 

ai real photography studio

Once Clay had his arsenal of background images, he focused on creating abstract patterns to represent words or literature that would be projected onto the models’ faces. Using a combination of his own scribbles, doodles, and stock images that he then blended with AI prompts, Clay made sure to keep the gradient coloring in line with the other elements he was using for the production.

ai real photography desk

Now Clay could have stopped there, but he’s truly passionate about technology as it relates to photography, and was interested in the possibilities of creating different light set-ups simultaneously. He had heard of a tool called a Pocket Wizard Multi Max (or speed cycler), which is frequently used by sports photographers in arenas so they can fire flashes continuously, making sure not to miss any of the action-packed shots. Clay figured he could manipulate the device to set up four strobe lights gelled with different color zones so that within the burst of images, no two shots were alike.

I had seen a friend of mine use the speed cycler to create two distinct light setups and wanted to experiment with the tool in my own way. Funny enough, it’s discontinued or on backorder, so I found a used one eBay that worked like new. 

ai real photography setup

As a final element of the set-up, Clay used the Omni Creative filter system to manipulate lens effects like rainbows and light trails as he moved around the set. Between all of these tools, Clay turned the photoshoot into a playground of light, color, and movement, which is both fun and fantastical.

Zone 1 was red, zone 2 a blue and pink gradient. Then we had an orange heat umbrella with a soft teal light and lastly a big pink light with a blue underlight. And that cycle just repeats. So when you fire on burst mode it’s firing four zones: 1, 2, 3, 4. Then the foreground elements were on a loop of eight seconds while the background loop was repeating every ten seconds. And I’m just holding the shutter button down on my camera as thousands of possible combinations came to be. 

The results of Clay’s experimentation paid off, as his images (especially when composited together as a gif) celebrate the event’s theme of abstract design, innovation, and creativity. The model, Joy Thompson, and fashion designer, Andrea Kaye Hanson, were great to work with on set and both leaned into the exploration of movement for these images. And the feedback from others involved in the project was so positive that Clay has been asked to recreate the production for a live session with all the models right before the runway show.

For Clay, AI was one of many tools he utilized on this project, and he appreciates its ingenuity in helping to conceptualize abstract images that are hard to describe. While he doesn’t think it’s something that can replace photographers, especially working with real-world subjects for clients like KMAC Couture, he hopes that every photographer gets the chance to experiment with its endless creative possibilities.

So much of our work is in the feeling, energy, and connection we have with human emotions that I don’t think AI could tell an original story without a photographer’s input. But I do think that it’s important to be on the ground floor of these impacts to our industry. I’m glad that this project gave me the opportunity to do that and the beauty of KMAC is they’re fully supportive of contemporary art.

See more of Clay’s work on his website.


First Assistant: Jonathon Chi
Second Assistant: Ryan Grant
Production Assistant: Miguel Jimenez
Wardrobe Designer: Andrea Kaye Hanson
Model: Joy Thompson
Hair Stylist: Caleb Yeske
Makeup: Christina Weixler

About the Author

Liz Wolf is a copywriter and content strategist working as a writer and publicist at Wonderful Machine. You can learn more about Liz on her website and connect with her on LinkedIn. This article was originally published here and shared with permission.

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