BY Orit Gat in Fan Letter | 04 FEB 19
Featured in
Issue 200

How the JPEG Changed Everything

‘Every two minutes, people upload more images to the internet than existed in total just 150 years ago’

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BY Orit Gat in Fan Letter | 04 FEB 19

Anicka Yi, We Have Never Been Individuals, 2018, specially commissioned for frieze’s 200th issue. Courtesy: the artist

The most common image file format, the JPEG, was introduced in 1992 – though, like many other technologies, there was a 2000 version, which never took off. A compression method for digital images, it trades quality in favour of storage size. Digital photography predates the JPEG by almost 20 years but the JPEG changed everything: it created a culture in which a photograph is an object realized by a camera and thus defined by its production, whereas an image is something that is inseparable from its home on the network – that is, defined by its dissemination. Every two minutes, people upload more images to the internet than existed in total just 150 years ago. The lightweight file format has facilitated a new shared way of viewing the world. To look at a JPEG is to look at a standard image format while always being aware of it as a convention; its quality declines from copy to copy. Hence the language associated with the format: JPEGs are compressed but can be ‘lossless’ – restored using only their own data. There is a small, sweet romance to this possibility of infinite renewal. 

Orit Gat is a writer based in London, UK, and New York, USA. 

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