Exhibition Uses a Computer to Generate Every Possible Photograph


If you think about it, any digital photograph is simply a finite collection of pixels, with each one showing a specific color. There are also only a finite number of colors each pixel on a display can be. Thus, there are only a finite number of photographs that could possibly exist. An unfathomably large number, but finite nonetheless.

That’s the basic idea behind artist Jeffrey Thompson‘s Every Possible Photograph project. Thompson has created an installation that, given enough time, will generate every possible photograph by stepping through every possible combination of pixels.


The artist wrote the software himself, and uses a projector to display the computer’s progress. Here’s what he says about the piece:

This project investigates the idea of using computation to “use up” a piece of technology, in this case a digital camera. Using custom-written software (and a very long period of time), every possible photograph is generated, one at a time and in numerical order.

The idea that extremely useless labor is interesting is central to this project (and the proposed project as well), as is the eschewing of the utility of data and its representation in traditional visualization work. Attempting to create every image a camera is essentially a time machine; somewhere in the set of images and alongside billions of “meaningless” others are a photograph of me, a photograph of me if I didn’t get a haircut last week, and a photograph of me with someone who I have never met.

The installation creates between 200 to 300 new images every second. Here’s a video showing it in action:

Thompson has chosen to use a relatively low-res display (15x10px) and is limiting the photos to black-and-white images.


Those choices cut down the time it will take for the exhibition to complete by a significant number of years, but even with such limitations the program will take 46,138,562,195,008,110,600,774,753,760,087,749,172,181,189,607,929,628,058,548,517,099,604,563,033,706,075 years to generate all the possible combinations. The sun will only still be burning for another 5 billion years or so, so don’t expect to see anything meaningful come out of Thompson’s exhibition in your lifetime.

Just imagine how long it would take to generate every possible photograph if we were cycling through high-resolution full-color photographs!

This project can be understood as an experiment of the infinite monkey theorem, which states that given any text (e.g. the complete works of William Shakespeare) will be produced by a monkey hitting random keys on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time. Basically, the probability of it happening during any reasonable amount of time is so small that it’s effectively zero… but it’s not zero.

(via Co.Design via POTB)

  • kingkool68

    That’s 48.1 Quinvigintillion years for those of you playing along at home.

  • Joshua Morin

    Interesting idea…

  • Jake

    Does this mean he gets copyright protection for every single possible photograph ever to be taken? He’s gonna be able to sue everyone!! :P

  • Dan Howard

    existential realisation in 3….2….1….

  • Samcornwell

    A fascinating way to show the infinite monkey theorem (chaos theory?), I wonder what his choice was behind having it so slow. If 380 billion photos are being taken every year (I think PetaPixel blogged about this in 2012) that equates to about 12,000 every second. It would need to be a much bigger space or much smaller images but the cycle would be cut a bit. To get the cycle down to just one year though, we’d need a new computer.

  • David Liang

    Actually this is very interesting, if IBM can get their quantum computer functional it would speed this project up by the power of 9 or more.

  • Samcornwell

    Also, I need to reblog this on Tumblr. Can you post it please? :-)

  • Amadeusz Leonardo Juskowiak

    I don’t get modern art (I mind you I get the idea)…

  • Amadeusz Leonardo Juskowiak

    Imagine, if you have that kind of computer, you could “predict” the future (not knowing it’s the future), because you would generate every future and past image. Thanks God its not possible :)

  • Amadeusz Leonardo Juskowiak

    They would sue HIM for every picture in past :)

  • fotoogco

    no, it means that he will be sued by all of us photographers because he exposes our photos without permission

  • 773metric

    I like this a lot, from a practical point of view, and conceptually.

    I was reading a while ago about the possibility of using Pi as a data storage/compression device – somewhere, within the digits of Pi, is every possible combination of numbers. So any digital file can be described instantly by using two coordinates: the start point (digit 23545, for instance) and the number of digits to continue for (10 digits). What this means is that somewhere within Pi is an audio recording that’s indistinguishable from an actual recording of me singing Call Me Maybe in perfect pitch. Somewhere else is an audio recording that’s indistinguishable from an actual recording of me singing Call Me Maybe in perfect pitch but substituting the word ‘maybe’ for the word ‘sausages’. I just need to find it, and then pass on the coordinates to someone else for them to hear it.

    What this also means, on a more troubling level, is that somewhere within Pi, and also within Jeffrey’s output, is a photo of me killing my best friend with a hammer. Or rather, a digital image that’s indistinguishable from a real photo of me doing that. And therefore there’s also a whole bunch of child porn in there. Given that there are now laws about owning/creating/distributing non-photographic images that resemble illegal acts (i.e. you can’t draw cartoons of assaults on minors), Jeffrey’s programme could be seen by some of the more rabid enforcement agencies as being able to get him into some serious trouble.

  • Michael Zhang
  • Samcornwell

    Well, not just Pi, every infinitely recurring number. Infinitely being the key word here.

  • Todd Gardiner

    No, not every infinitely recurring number, 0.3333333… does not have every combination of numbers.

    I doubt Pi does as well. Being infinitely long does not mean it contains all possible digit combinations. Patterns might resolve over large iterations. Patterns mean that you can’t get every combination.

  • Stefan Heymanns

    Actually, Pi’s decimal representation never ends and never settles into a permanent repeating pattern. That’s what makes Pi so interesting and is the basis of what @773metric:disqus was pointing out.

  • wickerprints

    Indeed, it is not even known whether the decimal representation of pi is normal (see for an explanation). However, one can easily construct a transcendental number that contains every finite sequence of decimal digits: e.g., 0.1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526…. But as you can see, the location of a particular sequence is typically much farther out than the value of the sequence itself.

  • Stephan Mantler

    Actually, the probability of an infinite number of monkeys, banging on (unbreakable) keyboards for an infinite amount of time, to produce Shakespeare’s works, and all other works, is not even close to zero. It is (exactly) one.

    Also, I am saddened to see you (and/or the artist) didn’t even try to differentiate purely computer generate images from photographs, although no photographic process – digital or analog – is used in the process of creating those images. Have we really come so far that it is no longer seen useful to make a distinction between solely computer generated images, heavily edited photographs and those actually resembling reality?

    I find this quite disconcerting, to say the least.

  • Jake

    Sure, but by the end of his life, I’d guess that if he plays his lawsuits right, he’ll come out with profit. And spare every spare second in court haha.

  • zim2411

    It’s not limited by processing power so much as the display speed. It wouldn’t be as interesting if you didn’t see the progression vs. only seeing 1/1000th of the images produced.

  • zim2411

    Man, I’ve had this idea in the back of my head for years, but never got around to mocking it up with Python or anything. I also would have done the ultimate installation with many high res monitors, and allowed viewers to save images, somehow. Oh well. The number of combinations is staggering.

  • Mantis

    Somebody didn’t read the article before they commented on it.
    He’s not “stealing” anything. He just set up a computer to randomly display a. An an almost infinite number of different pixel combinations.

  • Joe Johnes

    That is essentially a time machine. Think about it, he can make produce all images possible, past, present and future! Every possible image you can think! Me with the next US president. Me as the next US president. Hell, even Chewbacca as the next US president!

  • Darbraun

    Call me when it produces something recognizable.

  • Matt

    So does that occur in every reality?

  • Mick Orlosky

    I wrote about this idea after I read Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel” … I’m glad someone actually did it. And @773metric is exactly right for tying this into pi. There’s nothing you can photograph that doesn’t already exist in the datastream. This should help us relax, right?

  • wickerprints

    Yes, pi is an irrational number, but that is not a sufficient condition for every finite sequence of digits to exist somewhere in its decimal representation. For example, the number 0.101001000100001000001… is irrational, but there are no digits 2-9 in its decimal representation. Therefore, it is not necessarily true that every possible image is somehow encoded in some part of pi.

    Pi is interesting enough as it is from a mathematical perspective. It’s not necessary to romanticize it and attribute mystical properties to it.

  • Jason

    Is it possible to come up with all the infinite possibilities? Is it possible to have some one review all the results and pull out recognizable images? Does anyone have a guess as to what percentage of possibilities would be recognizable?

  • Mkjrwj

    I’m not sure I understand this. I sometimes have trouble with math but isn’t this a combination with repetition problem? Assuming he is using 4 shades of gray (thats what it appears to be) and filling 150 pixels for each picture, wouldn’t that be just under 22 million pictures 153!/4!x149! You math wizards out there help me out. What am I doing wrong?

  • George Outsider Graphics

    I’d like to see who killed J.F.K.

  • Olve Andreas Austlid

    Hi Mkjrwj!

    You are using a combinatorial equation. Translating 153!/4!x149! in to english using a lottery balls analogy you get: If I have 153 different numbers and I need to pick 4 of these, how many combinations are there?
    For the picture, this would be like saying that your picture has 153 pixels, that there is only two different colors (on or off), and that only 4 of all the pixels are on at the same time.

    Instead, what you really should use here is: For every single one of the 150 pixels, you can choose 4 colors, so you get 4*4*4*…*4 = 4^150. This is a large number (About 2*10^90 = 2000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000)

  • jsthejus

    will porns stuff be censored?
    or what abut a gay bin laden screwing with g.w. bush on top of the twin towers?

  • ProtoWhalePig

    it never ends nor repeats… far as we know. But it might. Read Richard Preston’s terrific essay, “The Mountains of Pi” about the Chudnovskys for more. It’s easily googled.

  • ProtoWhalePig

    Not only is it one, but if there were infinite monkeys it would be instantaneous. The original proposition called for one monkey, which would require infinite time.

  • Haas Colby

    I doubt any recognizable images will be generated within his or any of our lifeitimes.

  • AntonyShepherd

    “Ford, there’s an infinite number of monkeys out here. They want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out.”

  • Nick Williams

    Correct. This project is a failure since a camera does not actually display an instant, it displays a portion of an instant. Up to 1/8000th of a second, which is infinitely slower than what it would need to, to capture every single image. Even in the process of someone moving their arm from their side, parallel to the ground, there are infinite photographs that could be taken.

    This is a massive fail, simply because the thinking behind it is flawed.

  • Nick Williams

    There are not a finite number of photos that could exist. There are a finite number of photos that a digital sensor or any sensor for that matter can record. Think about it. There mathematically an infinite number of photos that could be taken, simply of me moving my hand a single inch.

  • mrfoxtalbot

    I wonder if the author ever read “La Biblioteca de Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges.

  • mrfoxtalbot

    I also thought of this a while ago (10 years ago, actually) while trying to calculate the amount of different pictures my (back then) 3mpx camera. And it was also linked to Borge´s “Library of babel” only that the amount of possible different images is much much bigger than the (already enormous) number of possible books. Mind boggling stuff.