“I see a lot of parallels between algorithms and the natural world”: Jack Latham unearths the organic nature of artificial intelligence

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Photo: © Jack Latham.

Winner of the BJP International Photography Award 2019, Jack Latham discusses his latest photobook Latent Bloom — which seeks to visualise how machine learning adapts and transforms every engagement we have online

BJP International Photography Award 2021 is now open, recognising contemporary talent of the highest calibre. Enter now.

“I see a lot of parallels between algorithms and the natural world,” says UK-based photographer Jack Latham. “Algorithms exist digitally, and they grow and react in response to our inputs. Meanwhile, like algorithms, flowers are cultivated and trained. I chose flowers because their existences are affected by the environments they occupy.”

In his latest photobook, Latent Bloom (Here Press), Latham fed hundreds of images of flowers into an algorithm in order to visualise how organically machine learning can adapt and transform content. Shot against the same salmon-pink wall, all of the images in the series retain an aesthetic similarity, but slowly they warp and glitch further and further away from the originals. Alongside the images, he also fed in well-known texts on photography, such as Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, and then documented how the form of language altered. “Doing this was my attempt to train an algorithm to understand what I want it to produce, and then the algorithm in turn tried to generate new images based on my initial ones,” he explains.

Latham was the 2019 winner of the BJP International Photography Award with his series Parliament of Owls: a deep-dive into the world of an elite men’s club, and the dangers of conspiracy theories and fake news. Now, he says, Latent Bloom picks up from where Parliament of Owls left off — but where that project was about the conspiracies themselves, this one focuses on the modes in which they are disseminated online. 

Latham made Latent Bloom last year, during the first UK lockdown. He had received funding to create a body of work in China about the influence of bot-farms on social media, but when that trip was cancelled, he still wanted to find a way to explore the concept. “If you interact with one website, video or tweet, you’re then recommended several more videos that reinforce that narrative, and this is exactly why conspiracy theorists are removed from sites like YouTube,” he says. “Instead of trying to fix the algorithm that recommends similar content, they will often remove the culprit they deem to be spreading misinformation.” 

Of course, that’s only a temporary solution. And it’s in ways like this, he says, that algorithms can mutate into systems that actually do more harm than good. Opening up a dialogue around these issues through the accessible language of flowers, Latham deftly reveals how algorithms affect our daily lives — and how, in often imperceptible ways, they influence both our tastes and the decisions we make.   

© Jack Latham.
© Jack Latham.
Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London