A new NFT project creates uncanny almost-natural scenes using imagery from famous landscape photographers.


‘These are not photographs’ read Cath Simard’s Instagram story. 

This made me pause – a pretty big deal when swiping through IG – you’re an incredible landscape photographer Cath, what do you mean they’re not photographs?

I knew that she’d got into NFTs in the last year. In fact the Sony Alpha ambassador credits them with completely changing her life, but surely she was just using the tech (and the hype) to sell her images… right?


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Something’s not quite right with this photo

Wait, what’s an NFT?

The term stands for non-fungible token. They’re this new way to keep track of digital ‘ownership’ of an electronic item, like a picture, video or drawing, and they use blockchain technology to keep it all secure (which is also used for cryptocurrencies).

It’s all pretty confusing, and the ownership isn’t legally recognised anywhere, but that hasn’t stopped insanely high valuations. It’s kind of like crypto, except that crypto is fungible (every token is the same) and NFTs are non-fungible (every token is different), making them collectable. You can read more about NFTs and Blockchain over on The Verge if you like going down rabbit holes.

It’s worth noting however, that NFTs are facing mounting criticism for their large energy demands, due to the incredibly complex calculations computers have to perform as part of the ‘minting’ and blockchain process.

This impact on the climate, as well as their involvement in a whole variety of scams and theft, has led to some people thinking twice about engaging with them, or even swearing off them entirely.

Creative Inspiration

Despite their problems, NFTs have given birth to some pretty cool artistic projects. You’ve probably seen some wacky animations, illustrations and computer-generated imagery on Instagram with the NFT hashtag. Head over to @superrare.co and have a scroll if you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s pretty darn mesmerising.



But in-between all the flashing skulls and neon cityscapes, you’ll notice some more regular photography has made the cut, particularly the kind of stunning landscapes that regularly feature on our own Instagram @we_are_explorers.

Many outdoor photographers have been cashing in, including regular WAE photographer Ben Savage. One of his images, named ‘Journey of Colour #15’, is currently listed for the cool price of 12 Ethereum. Which is roughly 50,000 Australian dollarydoos.


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Journey of Colour #15. I can download and save this image, but I don’t own the NFT | @ben.savage


I know, wild. But what’s all this about places that don’t exist?

Introducing AI-Generated Landscapes

There’s something not quite right about these pictures isn’t there? Is there? 

It’s subtle, on your phone you might not even notice, but the images in this article are all AI-generated landscapes, dubbed ‘Metascapes’ because they’re ‘a symbolic representation of the Metaverse’. Y’know, the digital reality old mate Mark Zuckerberg is creating. The two aren’t linked in any specific way, but given Facebook’s recent track record, that might be a good thing.

To create the Metascapes, three famous landscape photographers, Cath Simard, Ryan Newburn and Iurie Belegurschi fed over 2500 of their final, edited photos into an artificial intelligence system called a generative adversarial network (GAN), created by Versus Labs. The AI features two components, one that generates random images, and one that discriminates between real and AI imagery, then feeds back info to the generator on how to improve.


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Top: original photographs by Cath Simard, Iurie Belegurschi and Ryan Newburn.
Bottom: AI creations by the GAN AI that produced the Metascapes


Obviously it’s way more complex than that, but the tech isn’t completely new. For years now a terrifying website called this-person-does-not-exist.com has been spawning photos of fake people, after learning from real images.

The Metascapes have the same unnerving effect, they launch you into the uncanny valley, a place where things are almost real, but not quite.

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The Metascapes often feature humanoids that are either ‘ghostly inhabitants of the metaverse’ or ‘mistakes’, depending on how invested you are.

Curating the Metascapes

As with any art collection, the Metascapes have been chosen to showcase the best outputs from the computer. Granted, 2555 pieces, including 266 videos, is a tonne of content, and with a sale price of 0.33 Ethereum (roughly $1400 AUD) you’d have to really like your slice of made up paradise.


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The AI behind the Metascapes has been hard at work


A huge part of the whole NFT thing is people trying to make cash by buying and selling desirable ‘pieces’. But here’s what’s funny to me, if you sort the Metascapes for sale from price high to low, and exclude the top two (696,969,696,969 ETH and 69 ETH respectively, if that gives you any kind of insight into the sellers), it appears that the ones valued the highest are the ones that look the most realistic.

After all of the hassle of shooting incredible landscape photography, building a computer program, then hand-selecting the output and putting them up for sale, it seems that what people most want is proof that the AI is doing its job well: imitating the real world.


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The most popular Metascapes seem to be the most realistic ones, not the most fantastic or imaginative


It’s worth pointing out here that a portion of the Metascapes sales were donated to Give Back To Nature, who are planting 59,595 trees to offset the impact created by turning the images into NFTs. However, while the artists get a 7.5% commission every time one of the Metascape NFTs changes hands, no extra trees are planted despite the energy-intensive process kicking off via the blockchain to complete a sale.


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The planet after everyone buys NFTs, just kidding… maybe

Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?

I can’t help but be enthralled by some of the Metascapes. The fact that a computer can create an artificial landscape that forces me to look twice is mind-bending, but I’ll take solace in the fact that (for now) the AI doesn’t consciously know what it’s doing.

Do these images need to be NFTs? No. I think they’d happily sell as normal artworks, though you’d probably struggle to sell 2000 of them without the twin hype and gravy trains that NFTs are straddling. I’d probably even enjoy having one on my wall, watching my friend’s brains melt as I told them ‘that place doesn’t even exist’.

But I’d probably be just as psyched, if not more, on an actual photo from one of these artists. Their effort and skills were still needed to create the image, but the image depicts a place you can visit and experience, and I think that’s worth cherishing.

Power to the artists involved, but I think I’ll stay planted in the real world, for now.