AI ‘Photos’ Reimagine 1940s New York City

A triptych with surreal scenes: a jellyfish-like entity floats above a vintage city scene, a woman surrounded by perched owls, and a car vertically parked on a skyscraper.

A photographer’s new project reinvents 1940s and 1950s New York City via a series of fantastical AI-generated images that depict an alternative history.

Phillip Toldeano’s project began after he became fascinated by how many Americans believe conspiracy theories and began thinking about alternative worlds. He was taking photos while also working with graphic designers and retouchers to create imagery for the project when AI tools suddenly became available.

“So I thought, why don’t I just reinvent history?” He tells PetaPixel. Toldeano set about creating an entire world by reinventing New York in the 1940s and 1950s which he calls “historical surrealism.”

Black-and-white image showing a large group of people sitting along the edge of a rooftop, overlooking a city obscured by thick fog.

A man in a suit and overcoat reclines comfortably in a thick snow pile on a city street, eyes closed and head tilted back, with snowflakes on his clothing. vintage cars and a snowy cityscape are in the background.

A surreal black and white image of a giant, partially submerged statue of a man in a river near a city skyline, resembling a scene from a dream or a dystopian movie.

“I chose that time period in particular because when you look at imagery from that era, you immediately think it’s true,” says Toledano, who is from the U.K. but lives in New York.

Toledano has released the project as a book entitled Another America that contains some pictures that are “clearly not real” and others that “could be real.” He teamed up with a writer from New Yorker magazine to come up with imaginary stories to go with the pictures. The pair attempted to interweave some truth with the fiction by adding in real people’s names from that mid-20th century period.

Black and white photo of a man in a suit and hat sitting amidst a group of large, fluffy white poodles on a city street.

A red vintage car dramatically flies out of a skyscraper window, hovering over an urban canyon with dense, sunlit high-rise buildings.

Conceptual Photographer

Toledano describes himself as a conceptual artist stating that he is not bound by the same limitations as a photojournalist or documentary photographer. “I can do whatever I want and say it’s art,” he jokes.

The creative professional has previously incorporated painting, performance, and video into his work. The most important element is the idea for the project and he will use whatever medium he thinks is best — AI happens to be the newest one.

But he is arguably best known for his photography; having already published several books of mainly photographs. He found a book of AI images fascinating because he was able to continually create AI images whereas a photography project has a finite amount of photos. He describes the editing process of an AI image book as “elastic.”

A woman walks calmly down a city street, her head ablaze with fire, against a backdrop of hazy urban buildings and passing cars.

A man rides a zebra in a flooded street, with buildings visible in the background, creating a surreal scene in a black and white photograph.

‘Midjourney Mirrors a Photographer’s Creative Process’

There is much anger around image diffusion models that stand accused of using hundreds of millions of copyrighted photos and images without consent. But, many don’t see anything wrong with what the likes of Midjourney and OpenAI have done and perhaps unsurprisingly Toldeano is one of those.

“In a weird way, what Midjourney does is mirrors the creative process. Let’s say I take a photograph, that picture is an amalgam of everything I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says.

“Everything I’ve ever seen has been digested, it has formed a way of seeing for me. And that’s how Midjourney works: every time you make an image with Midjourney, it’s a result of everything Midjourney has ever seen, guided by the parameters you put into it.”

A woman in a wide-brimmed hat and fur coat, surrounded by multiple small owls perched on her hat and shoulders, against a softly blurred city backdrop.

A man in a suit stands in the middle of a city street with a large, bushy green plant substituting his head, blending into the urban scene under a clear sky.

Toledano acknowledges that AI imagery is not photography, but yet his latest work does a great job of impersonating photos. He says that’s because he’s been taking photographs for 40 years and understands that a good picture contains good light and a strong narrative.

“I would say to all photographers who are upset about AI that if you are a sh*t photographer, you will make sh*t AI work,” he says bluntly.

Toledano says he has a moral line when prompting text-to-image models, which is he will never input the phrase “in the style of” a specific artist.

He describes the work of distinguished photojournalist Michael Christopher Brown who used AI to illustrate Cubans attempting to cross the 90 miles of ocean that separate Havana from Florida — scenes that photographers weren’t able to cover — as “genius”.

A monochrome image featuring a large dirigible looming over a misty, early 20th-century city street lined with tall buildings. an old-fashioned car drives below as tiny figures walk along the sidewalks.

A woman dressed in a formal suit sits on a bench enveloped by whimsical clouds on a city street, her head tilted back and eyes closed.

The End of Truth?

Toledano tells PetaPixel he has had people send him photos unsure whether they are AI or not because of Toldenon’s verisimilar images.

“AI is the end of truth as we know it in a way,” he says. “Everything is true and nothing is true.”

“That’s the thing that AI has unleashed on the world, we just don’t know anymore. If you look at any image that’s slightly fantastical, the reflex for a lot of people would be, is that real? And that reflex never existed even a year ago.”

A neon green outline of a rabbit on top of a high-rise building at night, with a foggy cityscape and other skyscrapers in the background.

A vibrant, vintage street scene with colorful soap bubbles floating above a crowd and vintage cars, under a clear sky. the atmosphere is whimsical and playful against an urban backdrop.

Another America is published by L’Artiere and available to buy here.

More of Toledano’s work can be found on his Instagram and website.

Image credits: Phillip Toledano.