Artist's AI images of much-missed icons are surprisingly moving

We've seen all kinds of incredible creative content produced using AI image generation in recent months, from photo-realistic portraits of people who don't exist to surreal genre mashups. And as if that weren't already astonishing enough, someone's putting AI image enhancement to a fascinating new use, and with incredible results.

Ever wondered what a departed celeb might look like today? Well, a Turkish artist is trying to find out, using AI-based tools to envision what late celebrities would look like were they still alive. That might sound a little creepy, and perhaps it is, but the resulting images are also very moving. For more on how the technology works, see our guide to how to use DALL-E 2.

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So many celebs shine bright but leave us too soon. Now the Istanbul-based artist Alper Yesiltas (opens in new tab) is paying tribute to some of the most acclaimed actors, musicians and public figures who died young by using the incredible power offered by AI image enhancement.

In As If Nothing Happened, Yesiltas captures legends as diverse as Amy Winehouse, Freddie Mercury, Heath Ledger, Princess Diana and River Phoenix as they might look today had they aged naturally. He uses a multi-stage process employing several software programs to do it, including the AI-driven photo enhancer Remini and the popular photo editing tool Adobe Lightroom (opens in new tab), and the results are astonishing.

A post shared by Alper Yesiltas (@alperyesiltas) (opens in new tab)

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A post shared by Alper Yesiltas (@alperyesiltas) (opens in new tab)

A photo posted by on

A post shared by Alper Yesiltas (@alperyesiltas) (opens in new tab)

A photo posted by on

A post shared by Alper Yesiltas (@alperyesiltas) (opens in new tab)

A photo posted by on

Yesiltas work has attracted mixed responses. Many people are amazed at the results of his process, but some question how realistically he's captured how old each star would look today. The images of Princess Diana and Tupac Shakur have proved to be particularly controversial, with many suggesting that Yesiltas has depicted them as much older than the 61 and 51 years they would have today. 

"You have her looking like she sat in the sun smoking cigarettes in a Mississippi trailer park for the past 25 years," one person commented of Diana. "AI obviously doesn’t understand melanated genetics," someone said of Tupac. "You die peacefully with a thought that at least people will remember you young and hot, and then there comes technology. Not even worth it anymore to die young," someone else suggested. 

But some fans have been truly touched to see their icons brought back to life. One person commented on the image of Amy Winehouse: "It’s done so well she’s like not aged at all. Please can u do this every 5 years? I miss her so much!" And on the image of River Phoenix with his brother Joaquín, one person wrote: "This one hits hard. Just thinking about the career and life he could have had brings me to tears."

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Any attempt to resurrect visual images of those who have passed away sounds will come in for comparisons with science fiction of the series Black Mirror, and Yesiltas's does feel a little dark, but it also feels like a poignant tribute to lost talent. After so many recent AI art controversies, from a copyrighted AI graphic novel featuring a Zendaya lookalike to an AI image that won an art competition, it's refreshing to see AI imaging technology put to a use that's genuinely quite moving. 

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Joe is a regular freelance journalist and editor at Creative Bloq. He writes news and features, updates buying guides and keeps track of the best equipment for creatives, from monitors to accessories and office supplies. A writer and translator, he also works as a project manager at London and Buenos Aires-based design and branding agency Hermana Creatives, where he manages a team of designers, photographers and video editors who specialise in producing photography, video content, graphic design and collaterals for the hospitality sector. He enjoys photography, particularly nature photography, wellness and he dances Argentine tango.