A pairing by Recognition of a 2016 photograph with a painting from 1660 (all images courtesy Tate Britain unless indicated otherwise) (click to enlarge)

Art history repeats itself in contemporary photojournalism. That’s the premise of Recognition, a new project that uses artificial intelligence to pair British artworks from the Tate’s collection with visually similar photographs from today’s 24/7 news cycle.

Recognition won the 2016 IK Prize, which challenged contestants to use artificial intelligence to explore Tate’s collection of British art. It’s a matching game that’s resulted in some unexpected comparisons. After scanning 30,000 digitized artworks, the program paired a recent Reuters photo of eunuchs applying makeup before Mumbai’s Raksha Bandhan with “Two Ladies of the Lake Family,” a 1660 painting by Sir Peter Lely, the chief painter of Charles II. Despite hailing from different centuries and hemispheres, both images feature two seated figures wearing elegant blue and greenish dresses against a background of deep red drapery.

Eunuchs apply make-up before Raksha Bandhan festival celebrations in a red light area in Mumbai, India, August 17, 2016. (photo courtesy REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui)

What’s the point? Besides being a creative test of computer vision capabilities — like object recognition, facial recognition, and composition analysis — the program’s matches make the old seem new again, and vice versa. They draw connections between cultures and time periods that, on the surface, seem alien to one another. In doing so, the program provokes questions; the Mumbai photograph of eunuchs applying makeup paired with the 17th-century painting of royal British women might spark musings about gender identity, or cultural standards of beauty, and so on. In this mashup of old and new, the project is reminiscent of B4XVI, which pairs photographs of rappers with sculptures, paintings, and statues of similarly blinged-out historical figures from the Metropolitan Museum’s collection.

A_Lely, Sir Peter

Sir Peter Lely, “Two Ladies of the Lake Family” (ca 1660), purchased with assistance from the Art Fund 1955

Developed by Angelo Semeraro, Coralie Gourguechon, and Monica Lanaro of the Italian communication research center Fabrica, in partnership with a team of AI specialists at the French company Jolibrain, Recognition is only the latest project to explore how artificial intelligence can change the way humans look at images. So far, the value of robots’ contributions to human understanding of art doesn’t often go beyond novelty — take Microsoft’s emotion-detecting app, which deemed the Mona Lisa 43% happy, for example. But with Recognition, a robot inadvertently creates subjective meaning with its pairings, and starts to seem like a shrewd commentator. A recent Reuters photograph of a Singapore airport’s control tower alongside a bustling construction site paired with “Industrial Landscape” (1955) by L.S. Lowry, for instance, seems like a comment on the relentlessness of industrial development. 


A Recognition pairing of an L.S. Lowry painting and a photograph of construction in Singapore

Just launched, Recognition will now spend three months analyzing the latest Reuters news photographs and comparing each to thousands of digitized paintings and sculptures. The best matches, as determined by the technology, will be entered into a searchable online gallery. Paired images are accompanied by explanations of how the program made the matches. The website indicates the strength of similarities between the paired images’ compositions, faces, objects, and metadata (i.e., titles, tags on the image, etc.). A corresponding exhibition at Tate Britain allows visitors to compare the machine’s matches with their own. 

B_Lowry, L.S.

L.S. Lowry, “Industrial Landscape” (1955), presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1956 (© The estate of L.S. Lowry/ DACS 2016)

Construction takes place next to the Changi Airport control tower for Project Jewel in Singapore August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Construction takes place next to the Changi Airport control tower for Project Jewel in Singapore, August 17, 2016. (photo courtesy REUTERS/Edgar Su)


A Recognition pairing of a Henry Scott Tuke painting with a recent Reuters photo of bathers in France

Holidays makers swin in the Bassin d'Arcachon as warm summer temperatures continue in Arcachon, southwestern France, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

Vacationers swim in the Bassin d’Arcachon as warm summer temperatures continue in Arcachon, southwestern France, August 16, 2016. (photo courtesy REUTERS/Regis Duvignau)

C_Tuke, Henry Scott

Henry Scott Tuke, “August Blue” (1893–94), presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1894


A Recognition pairing of a Sir Stanley Spencer painting with a recent Reuters photo of street performers (click to enlarge)

Performers participate in the children's day parade at the Notting Hill Carnival in London, Britain August 28, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Performers participate in the children’s day parade at the Notting Hill Carnival in London, Britain, August 28, 2016. (photo courtesy REUTERS/Peter Nicholls)

D_Spencer, Sir Stanley

Sir Stanley Spencer, “The Roundabout” (1923), presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1944 (© Estate of Stanley Spencer)

See the results of Recognition online and at Tate Britain‘s Archive Gallery (Millbank, London, UK) through November 27. 

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.