Just two months ago, a Toronto-based Canadian who goes by the pseudonym Sy, had hit peak burnout. He’d been a professional photographer and videographer working freelance his whole life until he started working full time and hit the bottom.
So he took a break — strictly forcing himself to not fall back into a mode of toxic productivity, he chilled in his apartment for three days. Then he found Midjourney. On his first day of exploring the AI art image generator, Sy spent eight hours going deep into the rabbithole, typing written prompts until he conjured up some of the most insanely eye-catching imagery we’ve ever seen before.
Inspired by 1980s street photography and a love for the streets of New York, Sy has created a unique realm of characters that look eerily real but existing in an imaginary sci-future. His imagery features not-quite human creatures that look like they’re regular attendees of a bougie party from the elite community of the Hunger Games.
We spoke to Sy about the story behind his creations and what he sees for the future of AI art.
The Chainsaw: Sy, your photography work is absolutely insane.
Sy: Thank you!
The Chainsaw: So what’s your background and how did you make the move across to the AI landscape?
Sy: So professionally, I make videos, I take photos — I’m a creative person, and have been my entire career. And I just kind of stumbled into AI. I’ve been freelancing for my entire career and then I got into working full time and then I started to experience burnout from that. I was like, OK, I’m gonna need to take a break now. Then three days into my break, I discovered Midjourney. Then three days later, I started my Instagram account to share. It was two months ago to this day, actually.
The Chainsaw: Two months? So you’ve come from photography before, how on earth did you create this content?
Sy: Well, I guess a few ways. From a technical perspective, I put prompts into a chatbot, and you get images. It’s basically as simple as that. I worked on my prompts for a while until I kind of found a look that I was happy with. And that all stays the same — it’s about 20 words or so, and then you get another idea and so you try that out, or you add a necklace for example.
I get an idea for an image, or a caption. Other times I just throw random words in and I see where that takes me.
The Chainsaw: It’s wild. A lot of artists feel quite threatened by the emergence of AI art but for others artists, they believe these new tools should be embraced because you can essentially create art that you wouldn’t even imagine could be possible. What are your tips on how to refine your approach to prompts?
Sy: Right?! I mean, that’s the really fun thing about it is seeing things that aren’t real that look real. Things that look impossible. There are some really beautiful fashion photography AI accounts out there too. In terms of tweaking, you just have to open to possibilities. Whenever I’m stubborn, I don’t really get anywhere. Unless I’m really lucky and get exactly what I’m looking for. But the software is so random — it’s really just interpreting your words, right? So being open to discovery is my approach.
I might be looking for something specific or I say to myself, “Okay, let’s see where this goes” and just follow whatever road it takes me. Frankly, I don’t really care if I end up with that idea. As long as I end up with something that I find exciting, or just interesting. Whatever tickles my brain, I’m happy with it.
The Chainsaw: What was your inspiration for the 80s New York photography?
Sy: That’s a good question. I didn’t really think about it that much. I love New York, and I grew up in the 80s. I watched a bunch of movies about New York in the 80s. It just kind of felt right. I was just playing around on my first day. I must have spent eight or nine hours in Midjourney on that first day.
I basically didn’t leave my apartment. My neighbours probably heard me screaming the whole day saying, “Oh my God, holy shit! Look at this!” My goal was just to try and make something that looked realistic on the first day, and as I figured that out as I went along, I thought, well, where should it be from? New York? I love New York. And then I thought, let’s try something 80s — it’s just an aesthetic that I’m drawn to.
I really love portrait photography and I love Diane Arbus, an amazing photographer. I like the interesting characters that she photographed. But I wasn’t thinking too much about the influencers, it just kind of came naturally.
The Chainsaw: Are you planning on exhibiting some of the work? What’s the plan with the project? Or is this just purely a passion project?
Sy: Well, I did it because it was fun. I thought, well I should probably just put this on Instagram. At the end of the first day, I had 200 images and thought I had to do something with these — they were making me smile. And I thought maybe someone else will see it. Then it really took off. Some people ask if there’s a secret — I don’t know. It just sort of happened. The whole time, I just wanted to have fun. I don’t want this process to feel like work.
In that respect, I’m really just treating this as a story I get to tell at a party one day. No matter what happens, the story is already there. I can crash and burn tomorrow. I will be selling prints though and maybe to a photo book. We’ll see. I’m doing some commissioned work now. But I just don’t want this to be work. As I said, I was burned out and just doing this for fun.
The Chainsaw: Well maybe that was a blessing for you that you were forced to have this timeout.
Sy: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t think, “Okay, I’m going to take a timeout to be creative.” I didn’t really care if I was being creative. I just needed to rest my brain. And then after three days I discovered Midjourney and found it really therapeutic.
The Chainsaw: What do you see for the future of AI generation?
Sy: Well, I don’t think it’s going to stop. It’s going to get better and more robust. I like how quaint it is right now, like the fingers are never quite right. You really have to be more creative and work around the fact that the AI isn’t as sophisticated as we want it to be, right?
If you put too many people in it, they start to look less like people. But in the future, it’s going to get better. It’s going to figure out hands, it will figure out the minor details.
In terms of AI beyond photography, I think AI video is really interesting. But it’s going to take a while until that really becomes photorealistic. But I’m not really thinking about what’s going to happen tomorrow. Some of it is exciting, some of it is really scary. Some of it is really fun. AI will probably write this article next month, probably.
The Chainsaw: I hope not! Well, congratulations on your epic creations. Looking forward to seeing more of your wild work.