Carnegie Mellon University
February 18, 2021

Finding the Hidden Gems of the Modern Photography World

The Silver List marshals the power of machine learning to identify artists hidden in plain sight

By Stacy Kish

Strolling through a museum offers a respite from the seemingly never-ending pandemic. While many institutions have opened their doors, they are allowing fewer patrons inside, which provides a unique art-viewing experience. Taking a step back, it may become apparent after an hour or so that the vast majority of many collections housed within museums’ walls do not represent the whole of society.

“There is a shock of recognition when you find an artist who speaks about something with their art that you care about,” said James Wang, a senior majoring in statistics and machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University. “I have always been drawn to creative [projects,] and I wanted to find an overlap between the visual arts and my technical classes.”

Wang decided to merge two passions – machine learning and photography – for his Quantitative Social Science Scholars project to fill this gap. Leveraging a concept developed by the Black List, Wang and his collaborators created the Silver List, a program aimed to raise the visibility of diverse, high-quality and otherwise-overlooked photographers. A Feb. 11 Vanity Fair article featured the Silver List’s debut.

An Artistic Seed Is Planted 

[At CMU,] we are problem-solvers,” said Joseph Kadane, the Leonard J. Savage University Professor of Statistics, Emeritus, and an advisor on the Silver List. As such, we use whatever method fits the problem we're trying to solve.”

During an independent study at CMU, Wang designed a machine learning computer model to produce photos in style of “Equivalents,” a series of cloud photographs taken by Alfred Stieglitz in the early 20th century.

“I think sometimes there's a misconception that the arts have some kind of a monopoly on creativity, when in reality all fields need and benefit from creative thinking,” said David Oresick, adjunct professor in the Department of History and an advisor on the Silver List. I love the diversity of perspectives that are generated by this interdisciplinary approach.”

With his success, Wang took his creative efforts to the next step. He decided to find a way to merge statistics with photography. The end result is the Silver List.

The Silver List Forms

The Silver List consists of 47 young and emerging artists who have been identified by 125 nonprofit organizations, photography curators, educators, scholars and critics. The contributors were asked to identify talented living artists that use photography as their medium in their careers.

Wang hopes to expose a broader audience to these often missed gems of artistic greatness.

“This is not a collection of work by straight, white, male, cis artists,” said Wang. “It is extremely diverse. These are artists who bring different perspectives to the table, and we want to give them the attention they deserve.”

In particular, the work of Vikesh Kapoor, an artist on the list, caught Wang’s attention. Kapoor’s work examines race, class and identity as a first-generation American.

“His work is about his immigrant parents and the [artist’s] sense of connection and disconnection with different cultures,” said Wang. “This struck a chord personally.”

Wang is also capturing demographic information on the respondents and most of the artists through his surveys. He hopes to determine if the respondents' recommendations were influenced by who they are and how they identify.

“We were curious if recommenders tend to recommend artists who look like them, on some dimension, whether that be race, gender, age or something else,” said Wang. “It's still in its early stages, but I'm very excited about what this unique approach can contribute to discussions around diversity and equity in photography and the art world as a whole.”

Wang hopes to use this platform to support emerging artists and find them a seat at the table.

“This project isn’t about me but about getting these artists recognition,” said Wang. “The Silver List is a snapshot that shows the thoughts of a professional community that cares deeply about contemporary photography.”

The Silver List is a partnership between Silver Eye Center for Photography, The Black List and CMU. Wang received guidance from Oresick, Kadane and Franklin Leonard, the founder of The Black List. This project received a Small Undergraduate Research Grant from CMU’s Undergraduate Research Office.