conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 15.08.2023
MARGARET MURPHY: PHOTOGRAPHY IN A POST-SOCIAL MEDIA ERA
IDENTITY AND AI
When Margaret Murphy pressed the shutter, the subject on the other side of her camera was frequently herself. Self-portraits revolving around topics like femininity, sexuality, and identity in a post-social media era were where Murphy’s artistic focus was before she discovered AI. With her camera, she has explored the relationship between herself as an artist and the subject, while with AI, she combines the personal and the universal.
Having grown up on the Internet and everything that comes with it, Murphy’s art speaks the language of online culture. Her brightly colored and aesthetically accentuated photographs and AI works encourage dialogues that are mostly led on social media: Murphy creates images questioning gender and the male gaze, beauty standards, and self-perception, while also exploring deeper recesses of memory and identity.
In conversation with Nora Partl, Online Editor, and Anika Meier, Murphy discusses self-portraiture and identity, image-making and AI, memory, and nostalgia.
NP: Margaret Murphy, how did you get into art?
Margaret Murphy: I don't come from an artistic background. No one in my family is a visual artist, but I always enjoyed drawing in art classes and have been drawn to photography ever since I was a teenager. I found so much freedom and joy in running around and just capturing everything I was looking at.
Photography allowed me to access a new realm of interpretation, which led me to study it in high school. I spent a lot of time taking pictures, I took a lot of classes, and I just really fell in love with the process of photography as well. The experience of being in a darkroom, especially as a teenager, is something unique. It felt like an impossible task to do, but at the same time, it was very freeing to just kind of go in there, put my music on, and not worry about things.
NP: Why did you choose photography as your preferred medium of expression?
MM: Photography allows for the expression of oneself using only a camera. I enjoyed drawing and painting, but I didn't find myself particularly skilled at them. To me, it felt much more interesting and liberating to know that I just have to push the shutter to be able to access creative freedom. It taught me how to see things differently too, paying attention to how light or composition plays a role in different scenes. It fit in so well with how I moved around the world and saw things around me even when I wasn't photographing. Looking back, I realized that I already had a photographic eye, which was both thrilling and validating. I chose a medium that really speaks to me and feels natural.
Photography is also a universal experience because even if you are not a photographer, you still take pictures while on vacation, at a concert, or anywhere else to simply capture the memory.
NP: Do you feel like your photographic eye now is better than when you started photographing?
MM: I think that everyone is capable of seeing photographically. It's simply the encouragement, incubation, and nurturing of that vision. If everyone took a photography class, I think that everyone would be able to develop a photographic eye. It exists in all of us.
NP: When taking pictures, are you on the hunt? Do you act impulsively, or do you already have the image in your head?
MM: I think in my artistic journey, different styles of picture-making have felt more natural or true to where I was at as an artist. Certainly, in my early years, I let a lot of pictures find me because I was just always looking. I think the reason for that was that I didn't necessarily have my artistic voice yet. I didn't know what story I wanted to tell, what message I had, or what was motivating me. As a result, I would just let things happen and learn from the experience. That's the most joyful way of creating art. But as I grew older and began to take myself more seriously as an artist, it became clear to me that if I was going to keep making art, I wanted it to have meaning and to say something that felt authentic to me. Mentors and art critics encouraged me to speak about ideas that were brimming inside of me that maybe I had never shared with anyone else.
And then it’s all about how to translate these ideas into a visual representation. I think figuring out what sort of seed it is and what it can grow into is where the artistic direction comes in. A lot of it is trial and error. It's not right every single time, but there's a time and a place for certain images. It's almost like baking: you see how it goes, and maybe you change the recipe slightly the next time based on how it turns out. I like analogies.
NP: In your work, femininity and the female body play a big role. What inspires you about feminine energy, and how do you visualize that in your work?
MM: If you had asked me this maybe a year ago, I would have given you a completely different answer. But I think I very much try to speak with a voice that acknowledges the complication of the male gaze and femininity and the patriarchy, because many women, myself included, grow up benefiting from it. As a result, our identities form around it. They're so intrinsically linked that it becomes hard to be so black and white.
I think right now it's a period of transition for me, but I will always have a female body. Inherently, the female body is political. There's no way around it. By inviting viewers to go on this journey with me, especially as a self-portrait artist, I am asking them to think about how these works resonate with everyone.
My art includes the dialogue it generates and the conversations I like to start. A man is going to have a much different experience of my work than a woman my age or a woman much older or younger than me. I think that's beautiful because it shows the differences in time and culture and how things change. That motivates me.
NP: How do you feel like social media has influenced your work, especially in regard to self-portraiture, and what impact does it have on photography in general?
MM: I don't know femininity without the Internet. I was a teenager when Facebook, MySpace, and these platforms were really on the rise. Simply by virtue of the Internet's nature and the creation of an online presence for yourself, you are being asked to identify and categorize your identity in ways that have possibly never been done before.
GLITCH FEMINISM by Legacy Russell is a wonderful manifesto about how the Internet liberated many people in marginalized communities to become authentic versions of themselves, more so than they could in an AFK (away from keyboard) world because there weren't all these limitations. But I do find that, like with most things, it's a double-edged sword, right? You have people that are selectively choosing body enhancement surgeries that are mimicking what AR and VR filters are doing, while they were never really meant to exist in the real world.
I believe that in many ways, social media has been fantastic for people to feel more authentically themselves and have a better understanding of who they are. I believe that social media has given several movements, including the body positivity, fat liberation, and body neutrality movements, opportunity. There are other fresh groups and views that serve as a type of counterbalance. All you need to do is know where to search and be receptive to them.
The AR face filters used in my portraits are clearly influenced by the kind of Snapchat filters that I personally thought were a lot of fun to play around with. Additionally, it was this strange dance where they kept changing how I looked yet occasionally it seemed to reflect how I felt on the inside.
NP: In your work you focus on self-portraits and how you perceive yourself perceiving yourself. Can you explain your artistic approach further? What are the challenges of self-portraiture?
MM: My fascination definitely comes from the fact that, almost as long as I've been taking images, I've been photographing myself to present online. But I think what really got me interested in photographing myself in a more serious artistic sense was when I read WAYS OF SEEING by John Berger. There's a chapter about women and how women must be both the surveyors and the surveyed in order for them to be successful in life, constantly aware of how they are being perceived. That was something that I had felt in my entire life—this idea that there was someone watching me somewhere, either from inside my head or somewhere else.
I thought that, artistically, it would be interesting to explore the relationship between myself as an artist as well as a subject. These perceptions are very different, and that creates an interesting dynamic internally within just me, Margaret the individual. Taking self-portraits felt like the most natural way to express all the things that were important to me and that I wanted to talk about. I was the best vessel to sort of explore those ideas, which were centered on relationships between a subject and a photographer.
NP: You are visualizing very personal topics in your work. What are some of the reactions you've gotten to your work?
MM: Well, I will say that my work is not for everyone, and that's okay. Instead of basing my life and practice on how others perceive my work, I believe I needed to give myself permission to do it. I focused more on the people that could resonate with my art. Feedback is often just other people's projections. That includes people’s insecurities or prejudices about how a woman should represent herself in a photograph. I have been met with a wide variety of criticism. But that's also part of the dialogue that my work creates. I just think about how I can create art that speaks to people who need to see it. The worst thing that someone could say is "It's good" or "It’s fine," because that's the end of the conversation. Even harsh criticism is more useful than that.
NP: Your photographic series "I Could Look at You All Day" is a series consisting of images that emerged during Lockdown. Can you speak a little bit more about this project? What have you learned about yourself since realizing that project?
MM: "I Could Look at You All Day" is the project that changed everything for me in terms of finding my artistic voice and expressing topics that I wanted to explore in my art. It's certainly been a catalyst for the work that I've done since then. Rather than just another selfie, I believe it was an exploration of feeling confident enough to use myself as a subject in an artistic sense. The still lives were very special because initially I showed the work in different iterations, some without the still lives and some with them. I found that the still lives and the images that don't have me specifically as the subject created a conversation.
The project allowed me to really expand upon the kind of art that I want to make. I don't necessarily consider myself just a photographer anymore. I think that's a direct result of this project because I became so much more interested in work that dealt with the topics that I was exploring—and that kind of art is not just limited to photography. It's collage, it's mixed media, it's net art, and it's digital art.
Anika Meier: You are a trained photographer used to working with a camera and yourself as the subject. How did you get started working with AI?
MM: I was introduced to the commercially available AI software, Midjourney, by my friend and fellow artist Michael Perez (aka Fantastic Planet) in the summer of 2022. At this time, I had felt a bit of exhaustion with self-portraiture and was somewhat fatigued by the medium of photography in general, which is arguably common after completing an MFA.
With Midjourney, I was interested in the way the program required text prompts to create an image, how specific the formatting of these prompts had to be, and the fact that the program was trained on relatively unknown images. Conceptually, I was fascinated by the idea of AI as a "representation" of visual media and how subjective or objective that could be.
It took a while to get the hang of Midjourney, but once I did, I was exhilarated by how quickly I could generate imagery. As a photographer, I mostly shoot digital, which is more prolific than film, but I was making hundreds in hours with no need to set up lighting or a tripod. It was exciting.
AM: What are some of the challenges you experience when working with AI?
MM: Relinquishing full artistic control is always a challenge, but it is honestly one of the most rewarding parts of creating art with AI. The idea may be there, but getting an exact replication of what you envision is nearly impossible when you’re collaborating with AI. Usually, though, the AI interprets my idea in an even more interesting way. It can also be hard to maintain a consistent style, especially when technology is upgraded at such a fast pace.
The work I did in 2022 using v3 would be extremely difficult to replicate with v5. Midjourney also has quite a bit of censorship, so if I try to rework an old output that it reads as containing nudity with v5, for example, I run into roadblocks.
AM: As a photographer, in some cases, it would be really difficult to create artwork that is a direct reference to another photographer. With AI, this now happens in the blink of an eye. Where do you draw the line when referencing other artists with your collaborator, the AI?
MM: I think it’s about influence versus replication. I would never try to make a direct copy of an artist’s work and claim it as my own using a photographic technique, so I wouldn’t try to do it with AI either.
People are influenced by things they see every day, whether they know it or not. I don’t believe that any idea is unique anymore, either, and I believe the artists I was influenced by in my photography work were important to finding my own voice. When I use artistic references in my AI, I try to do it in a way where it is creating something new but is inspired by these artists styles. Often, I’ll combine multiple artists styles with differing styles simply because I’m interested in what it would look like. If I were to do this on my own, meaning without AI, it could be costly and time-consuming, and to be able to do it with AI—as it interprets these influences—is really impactful.
AM: FUTURE PASTS, PAST FUTURES is the title of your first AI collection minted as NFTs. The starting point was your memories of growing up, but these are, in many cases, universal. How did you feel when creating the artwork?
MM: I think I realized that it was far more interesting to create memories that were not mine but that I could recall specific instances of. NO WE WEREN’T SMOKING, for example, is inspired by times I’d spend sneaking cigarettes outside the window of my teenage bedroom, but the uncanniness that the AI brought to it gave it an absurdity that I responded to. It was this absurdity that helped make sense of expanding the work to be more general in a conceptual sense as well.
I also liked making companion images that went together,such as EVERYDAY MAKEUP and SOME SHAVING CREAM of a girl and boy’s morning routine before school. I also saw it as an opportunity to live out stereotypes I hadn’t necessarily experienced, such as a pink stretch limo at my high school prom dance. The international response to the work was interesting, too, as many German collectors,for example, responded gleefully to the "Americanness" of these specific scenarios.
AM: What are your thoughts about nature in the age of the metaverse?
MM: I am intrigued by the ways in which nature can exist in the metaverse beyond our own understanding. Imagination is limitless, and so is the metaverse.
AM: You are an emerging artist. What is some advice you would give your younger self studying at art school?
MM: Being able to write and speak about your art is just as important as your ability to make it. Know the history behind the topics your art explores so you can understand how they fit into the greater context of art as a whole. Being an artist is about more than just making something beautiful; always consider the viewer and the experience they will have with your work.