This controversial Adobe ad is fueling a war with creatives

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In a recent open letter to Adobe, the American Society of Media Photographers has accused the maker of Photoshop of a “shocking dismissal of photography and the photographers who have dedicated their lives to creating it.” The foreground problem: some of the language in a recent Adobe ad campaign. But look a little deeper, and this flare-up also seems like the latest indicator of an AI-inspired creatives-versus-tech-companies conflict that’s been brewing for months.

In this case, the trouble began with an Adobe social media ad that touted Photoshop’s “generate background” feature. “Skip the photoshoot,” the ad read. “Add or replace a background that matches the lighting, shadows, and perspective of your subject,” all in a few in-software steps. Photographer Clayton Cubitt reposted the ad on X (formerly Twitter), with the wry comment: “So glad as a photographer I’ve given Adobe tens of thousands of dollars only to have it pivot to selling ‘skip the photo shoot.’”

That complaint was amplified in a post on the photography news site PetaPixel, which rounded up similar gripes from LinkedIn and elsewhere. “They could have chosen copy that reads ‘Enhance your photoshoot’ or ‘Get more from your photoshoot,’” griped one post on the site, The Nerdy Photographer. But the real problem, PetaPixel argued, is that the ad wasn’t aimed at photographers—it was focused on their clients: “Adobe seems keen to advance its AI to the point where it can sell businesses content creation that is as easy as typing short strings of words into a text box.”

This was soon followed by that open letter from ASMP, a trade organization of 6,500 photographer members, framing the ad as an “attack” on the profession. “Adobe should take a hard look at how it describes photography and photographers,” it read in part, “and determine if you support this industry or wish to aid in its destruction.”

If that sounds like an extreme response to what arguably amounts to sloppy word choice, consider the context: Creatives of all stripes have been feeling threats that AI may pose to their livelihood—and have noticed that tech giants and startups alike seem all too eager to prioritize their own business motives. The most prominent recent example, of course, involves the allegation that OpenAI asked Scarlett Johansson to use her voice for the latest iteration of its ChatGPT assistant product—then, when she said no, blithely released a sound-alike default voice. (OpenAI denied trying to mimic the star, but did pull that voice option when she complained).

The use of AI was also a significant point of contention in the recent Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes. But the skirmish over the Adobe ad may hint at the future of the debate as members of various creative professions—not just photographers, but actors, writers, musicians, illustrators, film and TV art crews, and indeed advertising creatives—find the tech business shifting from making useful tools to making robotic rivals. That cultural tension may even help explain why many reacted so vehemently to the recent Apple ad depicting tools of creativity being crushed into a single inhuman tech object. 

Adobe did not respond to an email from Fast Company, but an earlier statement to PetaPexel said, in part, that the company is “focused on harnessing the power of generative AI to amplify human creativity and expression, not replace it.” New AI innovations mean “new superpowers for all Photoshop users,” it continued, and help professionals “eliminate mundane tasks.” 

Elsewhere, Adobe has positioned itself as continuing its core tradition of building tools for creativity. “Every successive generation of technology has actually expanded the number of users who can use our products to tell their story,” Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen recently told the Washington Post; and that includes AI, which will “further democratize technology,” and “attract a whole new set of customers.”

Like other companies pushing AI, Adobe has suggested that the dynamic around those tools is changing no matter what. That’s why it built its text-to-image generation tool, Firefly, and has lately integrated it into Photoshop (to power things like the “generate background” capability). Generative AI “is a revolution,” Scott Belsky, Adobe’s chief strategy officer and executive vice president of design and emerging products, told the Wall Street Journal recently, as part of an article about stock photographers fearing for their livelihood. “This is the new digital camera, and we have to embrace it.”

The tricky part will be defining who “we” refers to—and whether creatives feel included.  

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