As the world transitions into an artificial frontier, anything can happen. AI tools have gained a polarizing reputation, especially in the world of art. There is a lot to be said about AI’s place in art, both good and bad. AI is a relatively new area to explore, and with all adventures, there is a story to tell. Sy Goldstein’s story is one of inspiration.

Goldstein has gained a considerable following for his AI New York City street photography. He creates odd and vibrant characters on the streets of New York, which he photographs with AI. Before stumbling upon AI, Goldstein was already an accomplished artist and storyteller, but something didn’t feel right. He began to feel burned out from his job as a content producer. For him, using AI to create art is a source of creative freedom and a therapeutic outlet that reignited his passion for storytelling. 

In an interview with ArtsHelp, Goldstein shared his journey in the world of art, proving that in the hands of a talented and passionate artist, AI has the power to give back what many artists lose when caught up in the business world of art. AI brings one back to the joys of creating art with no outcome or deadline in mind. Just creating for creation's sake. There are countless opinions on the use of AI in art, but one thing is for certain: it reminds one of the purposes of art—to express oneself. By inspiring other artists to see AI as a well of personal growth and creative freedom rather than something to be frowned upon, Goldstein aids in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of Good Health and Well-Being and Quality Education.

Henry and Co., Times Square, 1984 by Sy Goldstein. Image courtesy of @sy_the_ai_photo_guy/Instagram.

Tell me a bit about your story before coming across AI art.

Sy: I’ve been surrounded by cameras my whole life. My great-grandfather opened one of the oldest camera stores in the country. My grandfather eventually took over the business, and then my father, until he retired. So while I never went into the family business, it’s no surprise that I ended up working in film and photography, mainly video production. 

I’ve directed music videos, branded content, documentaries, short films—you name it. I’ve always been drawn to interesting stories and weird characters. I freelanced for many years, then decided to accept a full-time position doing in-house content production. It only took a few months for me to realize how completely and utterly miserable and burned out I was with a “real” job, so I eventually decided to take a leave of absence while I rested my brain. It was only three days into my leave that I discovered Midjourney, and then maybe three days later I started my AI Instagram account. After my three-month leave of absence, I quit my job, because as far as I was concerned, I was never going to work in an office again.

Mort and Co., Times Square, 1986 by Sy Goldstein. Image courtesy of @sy_the_ai_photo_guy/Instagram.

How can young artists embrace AI in their creative process, considering potential negative connotations, and what benefits can AI offer them? 

Sy: Well, I don’t think any artist should be wary of using AI as part of their creative process. I think as long as you have something to say and some story to tell, you should use whatever creative tools are at your disposal. I find nearly all of the negativity around AI to be either really boring or completely unfounded. es. With AI, it’s easy to copy other artists, but you don’t need AI to rip people off. So just be original and be yourself, and hopefully you’ve got something cool to say!

Mike, Times Square, 1989 by Sy Goldstein. Image courtesy of @sy_the_ai_photo_guy/Instagram.

Can you describe a time when an unexpected AI-generated result led to a breakthrough in your creative process?

Sy:  Honestly, it feels like it happens all the time. I’ve always been open to discoveries as an artist. As a filmmaker, I always felt that the script wasn’t finished until the final edit was done. Things change on set: new ideas pop up, actors improvise, editors have new ideas, scenes get deleted or reshaped, and so on. I feel the same way about my creative process with AI. I might have an idea, but if playing around gives me a new idea, then I’m happy to go in a new direction. For me, it’s part of the fun.

Zelig, Times Square, 1989 by Sy Goldstein. Image courtesy of @sy_the_ai_photo_guy/Instagram.

How does the process of creating AI art serve as a therapeutic outlet for you, and do you think this could be a universal experience for artists?

Sy: I really can’t speak for other artists, but going back to my first days with Midjourney, it was therapeutic. I felt like I was in a creative rut, not interested in being creative or telling stories. I was very close to going back to school in a completely different field. But working with Midjourney woke me up again. Weirdly, it was the rest that my brain needed while on leave. My job was a sea of beige where creativity was stifled, and where I had to have permission to do anything. 

Generating images and telling stories with AI was extremely liberating, and in a lot of ways, validating. I’ve been very lucky to have found an audience for my silly stories. This past year has been like a gift. I have no idea how long this will last, so I’m just trying to be in the moment and enjoy what comes my way. With that in mind, enjoying the moments that come has been extremely therapeutic for me.

Zelig, Times Square, 1989 by Sy Goldstein. Image courtesy of @sy_the_ai_photo_guy/Instagram.

Your work reinvents portraiture through an '80s New York lens. How can AI help artists delve into historical or thematic explorations in their work?

Sy: Well, I think any artist who wants to delve into anything historical will need to know what story they want to tell first. But having said that, clearly Midjourney has tons of references banked for all of history, give or take. I brought my love of the ‘80s and New York City to Midjourney, so I think if you want to delve into history with AI, you should approach it with a love or interest and then work with Midjourney to realize the vision, rather than the other way around.

Terrence, West Village, 1981 by Sy Goldstein. Image courtesy of @sy_the_ai_photo_guy/Instagram.

In what ways has AI helped you transcend traditional artistic boundaries, and how can other artists use it to expand their creative horizons?

Sy: I think the obvious answer is that you can do whatever you want with AI. So there aren’t nearly as many boundaries as there are with other mediums, especially ones that require serious budgets to produce. With AI, you can have immediate results—or at least some sort of immediate result. I use it mainly to build my weird 1980s NYC world of characters, but AI can be incorporated into virtually all visual mediums.

Your characters tell interesting stories. How can artists harness AI to enhance the narrative aspect of their art?

Sy: AI can be a great idea starter. With a few words in a prompt, you can generate images that act as seeds for new ideas. You can also obviously see your ideas with AI in ways that weren’t possible before, at least not as realistically rendered. But in a lot of ways, AI hasn’t changed my approach to storytelling. I’ve always been interested in similar stories and characters. It’s just that now I can tell these visual stories without having to worry about budgets.

-Paul and Scrunchie, West Village, 1989 by Sy Goldstein. Image courtesy of @sy_the_ai_photo_guy/Instagram.

How has your engagement with AI art influenced your personal and professional growth, and what lessons can you share with emerging artists?

Sy: In many ways, it’s taught me to trust my instincts as an artist. From the beginning of this AI journey, I’ve always just done whatever I wanted to do. Sometimes people like it, sometimes people don’t, and that’s fine because ultimately I’m doing this for myself. I love connecting with people and knowing that something that makes me laugh can make other people laugh too, but whatever quality this project has would be lost if I was just doing what I thought other people wanted to see. In terms of professional growth, well, my account got big so people suddenly want to work with me!  All I can say to emerging artists is to be yourself. There’s no guarantee of success, so you should try to create things that you want to see. Otherwise, there’s no point.

Skip and Co., Times Square, 1989 by Sy Goldstein. Image courtesy of @sy_the_ai_photo_guy/Instagram.

AI art can be seen as more accessible to those without formal training. How do you view AI's role in democratizing art creation?

Sy: I think it’s great that more and more people can find entryways into art through AI. We’ve seen similar things with going from film to digital video and then finally to iPhone cameras. Money shouldn’t have to be a big barrier to telling stories. But first and foremost, you need to have a story to tell, and you need to know how to tell a story.

Put it this way, my favourite AI artists—who also happen to be some of the bigger AI artists right now—all come from an artistic background. They’re photographers, filmmakers, writers, and graphic designers. I think they’re also virtually all in their mid-30s to 40s, so they’ve all lived a little already. All this to say, they already know what they’re doing.

As a side note, I always find it funny when people say AI artists aren’t real artists because all the good AI artists are artists in real life.

Schmendrick and Schmatte, Times Square, 1987 by Sy Goldstein. Image courtesy of @sy_the_ai_photo_guy/Instagram.

Your work has generated significant interest and community engagement. How important is the role of community in the context of AI-generated art?

Sy: Well, it’s been very important to me, since without the community or the engagement I wouldn’t have the opportunities I’ve had with AI so far. But that’s the weird thing about Instagram, where “success” is often seen as having a bigger account when in reality, the numbers kind of don’t mean anything real. 

Social media is weird and after a while, I realized that I want to do this work outside of Instagram as well. That being said, when I started a year ago, a lot of other AI accounts were also just starting. It felt like a community with all of us discovering it together, sharing each other's posts, meeting each other through this ridiculous thing we’re all doing. I’ve met so many great people because of AI and I’ve become actual friends with some of them. Community is super important in any field and in most parts of life.

Bebe and Co., Times Square, 1985 by Sy Goldstein. Image courtesy of @sy_the_ai_photo_guy/Instagram.

To conclude, are there any other messages you'd like to share with young artists that you've learned on your journey?

Sy: I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned both through this AI journey and just generally moving through life, too, is that you’ve got to find happiness and follow it wherever it takes you. Do things that bring you joy. If you want to be an artist, you have to love the process and you have to be fine with the idea of nobody ever knowing about you. Because if you don’t love what you’re doing and if it doesn’t bring you joy, then go do something else. I’ve always loved working in the arts, and it’s almost always brought me joy. 

But it’s most often been for work in one capacity or another, especially as I’ve gotten older — that ends up taking some of the joy away. When I started creating with AI, it was purely for the love of it and purely for me. I had no serious intentions of making money or having a big Instagram following. It just brought me so much joy. It made me laugh. And it was at a time when I needed it most. So if there’s any message or lesson here, it’s just to make yourself happy — because otherwise what’s the point?

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