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UD student Jeffrey Churchman’s summer research was inspired by the idea that artificial intelligence could hold its own art exhibition.
UD fine art major Jeffrey Churchman uses trail cameras with motion sensors to take fine art photographs. He calls this work “invisible photography” because of his interest in removing the photographer from the work through the use of intelligent cameras that can take pictures on their own.

Driven to Discover: Jeffrey Churchman

Photo by Evan Krape

Summer scholar using intelligent cameras to create fine art

Editor's note: Research, community service, internships and study abroad are part of the summer for University of Delaware students. Follow them in action in our series of profiles and stories, which will be collected on the Driven to Discover website: https://www.udel.edu/home/driven-to-discover/.

Jeffrey Churchman is a fine art major from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. UDaily connected with Churchman to get a glimpse into the role photographers play in their photographs.

Q: What are you studying, where and with whom? 

Churchman: I am researching a photography technique called invisible photography, using motion activated cameras in three locations around Delaware with photographer Jon Cox, an assistant professor in the Department of Art. 

Q: What inspired this project and what interests you most about this topic?

Churchman: I was inspired by the idea that artificial intelligence (AI) could hold its own art exhibition. In particular, I am referencing an exhibition at the University of Oxford, where an AI robot created its own art, as well as an exhibition held in India at the Nature Morte where artists created AI and then displayed the work created by the AI as their art. I call my research invisible photography because I am interested in the removal of the photographer from the work through having an intelligent camera that can take the picture on its own. I am interested in how this affects the photographic relationship between sitter and photographer and the end result or photograph.

Q: What is a typical day like?

Churchman: An average work day starts with feeding my cat before I go out and drive around the state of Delaware to my different cameras in New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties. I take the photos off the memory cards and upload them to an external drive for me to sift through them when I return to Newark. Typically, I drive all the way home to Rehoboth Beach first and then I stop in Dover on my way back north. After completing whatever work I have to do for that day, I’ll spend the rest of the night with my friends down the street from me or with my roommate.

Q: What hurdles or learning curves have you overcome in the work?

Churchman: In my work I have encountered issues with finding the appropriate camera to use and where to display the cameras properly to achieve the desired result. The camera I need had to have motion activation, at least 14-megapixel resolution, night vision capabilities and a wide frame lens. I had to search through a plethora of trail cameras and ended up settling on two brands. Displaying the cameras also has proved to be a problem. Initially, I had a camera in each county, one in Rehoboth Beach at a small museum owned and run by a family friend; one in Dover on the outside of a friend’s house; and one outside of a friend’s house in Newark. These locations, unfortunately, did not generate a lot of foot traffic this time of year so my cameras took a lot of pictures of nothing. To overcome this, I placed the cameras in new spots where I can guarantee they will be interacted with, such as inside a friend’s house. My optimal end result would be a series of photos creating engagement with a sitter or sitters without the presence of a photographer.

Q: What are the possible real-world applications for your study?

Churchman: One of the biggest problems that I have faced when researching AI’s position in the art world is the lack of meaning behind the work generated by an autonomous machine. Unlike humans who can create a work of art out of passion or desire, a machine creates because that is what it was made to do. The question remains: is this amount of purpose enough to create art? My work could act as a stepping stone towards further development in artificial intelligence implemented in cameras, or it may reveal whether that is even a good idea. To decide, I will have to study the relationship between camera and sitter and see how both parties react and, if what comes out of it is profound or if it is just a mess of photos.

Q: How would you explain your work to a fifth grader or to your grandparents?

Churchman: I am working on a project using trail cameras with motion sensors to take fine art photographs. I will be displaying prints of my photographs at the Summer Scholar symposium in August and they also will be uploaded to a website carrying all of the photos taken by the cameras.

Q: What advice would you give younger kids (middle school or high school) with similar interests?

Churchman: Take advantage of the opportunities provided and talk to your teachers or professors because they are there to help. Throughout my undergraduate experience with the UD core art program, the majority of professors I have had were graduate students. I’m not sure if it was the closeness in age, but my relationships with these grad student professors were much stronger than my experience with normal professors. I still keep in contact with my old professors, and they recommend gallery openings and have even gone so far as to tell my classmates and I about opportunities to put our artwork in local galleries around Newark. Without these professors I wouldn’t know just how possible it is to have a career in the arts. I will forever be thankful to them.

Q: What do you enjoy when you are not doing research?

Churchman: When I’m not doing research, I enjoy reading, spending time with my friends and kitties and being around the ocean. In my own personal work, I enjoy working with video and using myself as the subject. I also enjoy animating videos and I have been practicing that on my own time hopefully getting better.

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