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Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Guest Post: David Smith reviews Someone for Everything

David is a regular commenter here, and a friend. Normally he's substantially more acerbic, which I suspect means something. The book sounds fascinating.

Someone for Everything by Michael LeBlanc — a review
(and a speculative digression)
by David Smith

Michael Leblanc is a visual artist, and a professor of digital design who I studied under in the early '90s. We stayed in touch, trading news and projects. I recently emailed him to ask if he or his colleagues had any truck with AI (he’s unaware of anything specific), and learned of his latest work, Someone for Everything 100 Sequential Drawings


Why would this book of drawings be of interest to aficionados of photography? It manifestly isn't a photobook, but it is a book that includes many photographs altered in ways familiar to those of us who have experimented with collage and other graphical devices. Working with stock photos, Michael has turned these experiments up to eleven.

I was particularly interested in Michael's take on AI, because he's a 'skeptical enthusiast' who introduced Luddite me to the uses of digital technology in visual art. But what, exactly is meant by "AI"? Well before the ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion (etc.) marketing blitz, AI encompassed many, less hyped applications that don't depend on the extravagant resources of deep fake manufacture.

"Before we go any further, let’s get one thing out of the way."

In his text, Michael takes considerable pains to make clear the 100 drawings were not AI-generated. Based on his emailed comments, I think it possible they were, at least partly, AI-inspired — if true, an interesting conceptual switch! Indeed, the methodology he lays out in detail sounds a lot like the AI process of assembling and modifying fragments of found imagery into a composition — a process historically known as collage.

To recap what is widely understood about the collage medium: one starts with source images clipped from newspapers, magazines, and other printed ephemera (other materials may be introduced). The images may be close-cropped to particular subjects/details, or (less commonly) they are included 'as is,' and glued down in a arrangement. In the digital era, many artists have adopted the collage method with scanned source and/or digicam images. There have been bitter accusations of plagiarism leveled against some AI image-generators, but this is a core precedent for the process itself.

If one takes the narrow position that a drawing is mainly comprised of brush or stylus marks made by human hand, the works in Michael's book look more like collage than drawing at first glance. Closer inspection reveals another possibility: the collage elements are a matrix on which drawing is overlaid. This doesn't take anything away from the book’s expressive power, but I feel it is important for understanding its conceptual provenance.

In his text, Michael describes his intentions for the series, reaching back to his practice of traditional printmaking (intaglio, lithography, etc.): maximal tonal range, 'richness,' and the idea of successive proofs in the development of a print. I'm going to say here I wish I had looked through the drawings first (my bad, I should have just skipped ahead). I've lately become interested in 'prompts' (titles, captions, and texts) — how they affect our readings of visual art. While I think such texts may ideally provide some insights into what a visual work might mean and why, I much prefer to absorb the information visually, and make up my own mind first. I strongly feel the proper role of visual art is to mystify and delight, rather than instruct (Michael is a professor, so…).

The 100 drawings

The sequence begins with Someone for Everything I, a charcoal drawing of a central figure delineated in, and surrounded by blocky tones. The scanned drawing is a scaffold for ensuing digital overlays of collage and drawn elements that shift, morph, are replicated and replaced. It may also be taken as a signal the work is to be interpreted as a series of drawings — something that might otherwise be overlooked! Compared to what soon follows, the composition is relatively simple and stylized, which makes it easier to spot superimposed drawing in later iterations.

The next few drawings in the sequence build up complexity and depth ("richness"). By the fourth (Someone for Everything IV), Michael has got his vocabulary, but the best is yet to come.

Some of the details feel 'off,' in a way that is uncannily similar to how AI image generators conjoin source fragments by attempting to conjure up the missing bits from the sparser reaches of a database. One obtains the strong sense that Michael isn't working to cross an uncanny valley to a seamless realism, but he is deeply interested in the surreal glitches and artifacts AI throws up in near-misses and abject failures. This tracks to his previous works on technology. I have to say again, that flipping this phenomenon into a basis for human invention is an impressive conceptual feat (cf. Francis Picabia’s Réveil Matin).

Michael repaints the collaged photographs, masking and fading elements, and sketching in new details in a kind of loose impressionism, as he builds each drawing.

Paging back and forth through the drawings, I am immediately struck by how they function together as a flip-book animation. This bridges the variable 'completeness' or polish of the individual drawings. While many of the drawings work very well as stand alone visual statements (and I'd like to see a tighter edit with these in), the sequence benefits from the inclusion of intermediary states in comprehending the greater whole.

Michael's collage sources include early Soviet photographs, and I think this is a good place to bring up what I see as possible conscious or unconscious influences on the overall direction of the series: Alexander Rodchenko and other Constructivists worked extensively with dynamic collage compositions during this era, along with Germans in the Dada movement (Hannah Hoch, Raoul Housmann).

Most of Michael's figures here are similarly poised for action, and are often rotated or flipped to an unstable angle for heightened dynamic tension. They are combined and recombined with other figures, whom they seem to be dancing with, fighting, or otherwise spatially interfering. Many of the figures have acquired exaggerated expressions through Michael’s overlaid drawing. Others appear as bland, anonymous ciphers. Drawn elements keep things in the frame, by setting up pauses in the action, and routing our attention around the composition.

The narrowly vertical (6:10) aspect ratio of the drawings perfectly frames a straight-on shot of a standing person with ample margins, and many of the drawings are of this configuration, often with limbs and other visual elements flying out at odd angles. The format, and placement on the page spread support both the 'book of drawings' identity in terms of traditional presentation, and the flip-book browsing experience — variations (and there are many) are locked into this layout scheme.

Michael alludes in his text to the possibility of the drawings printed large scale for an exhibition of the white-cube persuasion. It is easy to imagine LXIV, LXV, LXXV and LXXXI (among others) making for a very dramatic show indeed. He also states that he now considers the project a sketchbook of studies for (e.g.) large paintings.

I feel fortunate to have learned of this very interesting project, which has great depth and many facets of interest to me personally. I will be returning to this book as I try to unravel its meanings, and absorb its lessons.


  1. It does sound very interesting -- the "sequential" element seems the main original component -- but, wot, no book preview on Blurb?

    The few illustrations from the book on his website do seem reminiscent of Constructivist collage, as you say, and are very dynamic, but the sequential idea is completely lost.

    I can't see anyone taking an interest in or buying the book on such scant information, but then nobody buys [my] books on Blurb, anyway...

    Nice enthusiastic review though!


    1. Yeah I don't think he's been pushing the sales angle real hard. The pdf (I haven't seen the print version) will satisfy your curiosity for < ten bucks.

    2. Where is the PDF available? Can't see it on Blurb or the website.

    3. Oh. He made a last minute edit and re-uploaded it, so maybe forgot to include the pdf version. I'll let him know.

    4. PDF version is available now.

    5. It's there now. Satisfied customer.