Food for thought: If you gave a million monkeys a million typewriters and a bunch of cigarettes and coffee, or however that thing goes, they’d not only produce the works of Shakespeare but all sorts of bizarro versions of Shakespeare’s plays, too. Eventually, they’d come up with what Shakespeare’s plays would have been like if Shakespeare had, in fact, been Sir Francis Bacon, and they’d come up with a wacky take on Hamlet in which the hero’s father came back not as a ghost but a vampire. At some point along the way, they’d write a set of Star Wars prequels that weren’t so awful.
Why? Because infinity begets inevitability, or so the reasoning behind the theorem goes. The monkeys aren’t working toward Othello; they just happen upon it at some point during their eternal, unyielding keyboard mashing. And in much the same way, though in a slightly more orderly fashion, a recent project by the Nebraska-based artist Jeff Thompson will eventually live up to its name and produce Every Possible Photograph. Not just every photograph ever taken, mind you, but every photograph conceivable (including many you’d never think to conceive in the first place).
Thompson arrived at the idea after spending some time thinking about the slippery, subjective matter of what makes for "good" art and how he might remove himself from the process of creating it. Essentially, he says, he wanted to cede control of "the decisions that we think of traditionally as the provence of the artist," considerations like color, composition, and form. Short a monkey, he wrote some code to take the reins.
Thompson’s program spits out between 200 and 300 new images every second, each a slight, pixel-level permutation of the last. The output may not look like much—above, it’s visualized as a wall-size projection of tiny, flickering thumbnails—but eventually it will produce every photographic masterpiece ever captured.
Well, not exactly. In deference to some vanishingly small semblance of practicality, Thompson limited his endeavor to a grayscale palette on a 15-by-10 pixel canvas. "Even this version will take approximately 46,138,562,195, 008,110,600,774,753,760, 087,749,172,181,189,607,929, 628,058,548,517, 099,604,563,033,706,075 years to complete," he explains. "By way of comparison, the universe is 13,770,000,000 years old." So by the time the thing gets around to making tiny, pixelated sunsets, our own life-giving fireball will have exploded and incinerated our whole solar system along with it.
Still, for whatever its deficiencies as a useful image-making machine, the program is remarkably efficient at generating thought-provoking questions about the nature of art and imagery. For Thompson, who teaches courses on digital art at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the project shines light on all sorts of thorny issues.
"It’s a time machine!" he says of his creation. "It shows things that happened, things that will, things that will not, and every possible permutation and variation. What’s most interesting to me is what does this mean ontologically? If the camera didn’t 'see’ those events, are they real? They look like real people, but aren’t. What about images created this way that are illegal (child pornography, for example). They are not 'real’ but depict something very real."
Granted, he’s not likely to stumble upon anything illegal—or anything brilliant—at any point during our lifetimes. "Those kind of images will exist within such a vast ocean of noise that they are tiny statistical blips," he says. But you never know. Load this thing onto a supercomputer and maybe we can get something good. Or at least get a half-decent snapshot of someone’s lunch.