Content Aware, Cursed Image, 2021-2024
Artist's Book
An essay in progress by Brandon Bandy

This work began in the early months of 2021, just prior to what would become the explosive mainstream introduction of AI image generation. I’ve continued working on this project over the past 3 years revisiting it casually as the technology and discourse surrounding the subject continues to evolve. Absent from this perpetually lacking conversation is the mention of a lineage of cursed images as well as the concept of the technical image. Over the course of the past 3 years there have been two primary developments in this technology which have pushed me to complete this project. First is the transition from GAN to Diffusion models of image generation, popularized by the likes of Dalle 2 and Midjourney. Second is the more recent introduction of “Generative Fill” in Photoshop in summer of 2023. The premise for this publication begins with linking earlier GAN image generation with Photoshop’s earlier “Content Aware” fill tool.

“A cursed image refers to a picture (usually a photograph) that is perceived as mysterious or disturbing due to its content, poor quality, or a combination of the two. A cursed image is intended to make a person question the reason for the image's existence in the first place.” Online sources speculate the phenomena of “cursed images'' originated on, on October 28th, 2015. The first image posted by the account shows an elderly farmer surrounded by crates of red tomatoes in a wood-paneled room.
The cursed image has mutated, more contemporary iterations push deeper into the uncanny and alien through artificial intelligence image generation beginning with generative adversarial network models (GAN) which have dramatically increased in popularity and ubiquity over the time I have worked on this publication. These advances have ushered in a new era of cursed images, although not commonly defined as such, beginning on Instagram and Twitter in 2019. The earliest memetic iterations of this new wave spawned from a specific image, which I attempted to locate while writing this text. After a series of keyword combinations, I finally entered the proper search terms: “photo where nothing is recognizable.” The caption reads “Name one thing in this photo.” It looks like a photograph, but it is not. The image is the amalgamation of source material used to create a familiar but unrecognizable facsimile. Its exact origin is still uncertain. Speculation regarding the image’s origin claims it was created to mimic the effects of a stroke, however there seems to be no evidence supporting this claim. These early uses of GAN appear to mimic output generated by Photoshop’s “Content Aware” fill tool, likely because they use similar technologies. Introduced in 2010, Content Aware Fill analyzes the surroundings of a selected area, filling the selection with texture and color found nearby. Early imitations of similar technology were propagated by the 1987 film, Predator. Lurking out of sight, the titular character is obscured using cloaking camouflage. The effect was an ominous, nearly imperceptible pervasive threat. A deadly presence taking on an indistinguishable form, masking itself within the environment.

The 2016 controversy surrounding Kelley Walker’s “Black Star Press” and “schema” works at St. Louis’ Contemporary Art Museum is a formative experience during the early days of my practice. Working as an attendant at the neighboring museum, I was in close proximity. This show would be some of my first exposure to image based practices which reconsidered traditional modes of making. Walker’s work was and is openly continuing Warhol’s project, using some of the same images as a point of departure. Walker was criticized for his cavalier use of civil rights imagery and black cultural icons, and when questioned about this at an artist talk accompanying the exhibition, he failed to address these concerns seriously. The recording of the artist talks and following Q&A would never be posted online.
At the time I was experimenting with the content aware tool in my work, a colleague sent me an email with the subject line “I made Kelley Walker’s work more content aware:” with an attached image, one of Walker’s King magazine cover works, with cover model Regina Hall’s body now shrouded by the tool. With this obfuscation of the work, a singular digital manipulation elucidated and distilled years of representational discourse.
Within the exhibition, tucked away in a back room, were new works made by Walker, likely for the exhibition. These works seemed to be some of the most crucial in the exhibition, and likely went almost entirely unnoticed. I have never spoken with anyone who seems to be aware of them. Taking on the formal qualities of Walker’s Volkswagen ad series, the work is nine MDF panels hung in a grid, Pantone 032 U as a background, with the New York Times National Section from Sunday June 25, 2015 as their subject. For those unfamiliar, Walker would be one of the primary artists working with 3D modeling during its early years. In these works Walker scans both sides of printed material, UV wraps a plane of equal proportion, allowing him to manipulate the “page” in digital space. He warps and folds the page over itself, as well as digitally cutting holes through the pages revealing what is behind. The visible headlines read “A Day of Determined Hope as Charleston Mourns 3 More” – “Police Begin Stressing De-Escalation Tactics, Despite Skepticism in the Ranks” as well as something indistinguishable about the Supreme Court’s new ruling allowing same-sex marriage all alongside a plethora of advertisements. Where Walker’s other work falls flat, this one shines, flattening the tragedies, joys, and perversions of American life into one image, all while exploring the then novel slippage between the virtual and the real.
Sometime prior to the exhibition I became independently aware of the images that surrounded the Charleston murders, and they have haunted me since my first exposure. On June 17, 2015 white supremacist Dylann Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and murdered 9 Black parishioners with the hope of igniting a race war. Shortly after, his website containing a manifesto and zip file of images was discovered. 36 of the 60 images are self portraits, taken at his home or various significant slavery-related sites. These images have a haunted quality mirroring the cursed image. Despite his hobby, Roof was not a skilled photographer, they are both cursed due to their content as well as their dingy, poor quality. Given their location on Roof’s personal site, they escaped now routine content moderation which we subject to. Considering the continuum of the cursed image as well as the...

This publication contains the 36 self portraits which have been procedurally altered with the following actions in Photoshop.

> Open File
> Select Subject
> Expand Selection: By 15 pixels
> Fill Using: Content Aware, With Color Adaptation, Opacity 100%, Mode: Normal
> Save As: .psd

In the production of this work the removal of the hand or extraneous gestures would become critically important given the subject matter. For this reason the form and design language of the book is informed by the digital existence of these images. The cover of the book takes the form of the Mac OS Finder folder icons, the type is set in SF Pro, Apple’s system font. The book is the US standard paper size of 8.5x11”, printed on a...