What does jpeg do and how do I know?

Jpeg is an object within digital imaging apparatuses, both the ones I ‘build’ and the ones for sale in the Apple Store and Jessops. It is not the only object in those apparatuses and those devices, technologies or assemblages are constructed in different ways with different object-components. What is clear though is that the jpeg standard is part of the mix or the mesh.

The question then becomes, what does jpeg do? How does it change the nature of photography within our current scopic regime? This of course leads on to questions about how it does that (an issue I will approach via OOO) but before we get t that we need to what it actually does.

I would assert that jpeg changes the nature of photography in three ways:

It changes how a photographer understands the ‘decisive moment’
It changes how a photographer understands the ‘photo work’
It changes how a photographer understands herself as photographer

These three shifts are interwoven with the past and present of photographic discourse and the governmental implications of the scopic regime within which photography has always been enfolded.

A shift to the indecisive moment, the archive and the swarm of imagers (human and non human) is enfolded with governmental issues of the stream of data and information as the site for biopower. Rather than one single data point for a subject to be pinned to, now subject positions are constantly being updated and new data-mined connections established.

Such is an assertion. The issue then become how do I prove this.

I could approach this from a purely (sic) theoretical position. My object-oriented approach would allow me to argue back from an account of how objects connect to the way in which the jpeg object inevitably rims connects with governmental objects (databases, surveillance algorithms, art critics and markets) within the heart of new objects (the surveillance stream object, the Facebook wall object etc.) The question would of course be raised about such a working backwards, a post rationalisation, allowing theory to structure evidence rather than vice versus.

A second approach would be via traditional social science methodologies. I could engage in qualitative or quantitive research with photographers to establish these shifts. I could use surveys, interviews or discourse analysis to trace the changing way photographers (amateur, professional or somewhere in the middle) understand what it is they are doing now. Even given the sort of more modest approach that John Law calls for, such a method would be open to the standard criticisms of such work: questions of my position as researcher, the extent to which my research and research practice structures the network which I am exploring etc.

I could have taken this on by using an actor-network theory model. Following Latour’s call to simply describe, I could have sought to map the shifts and new understandings through an ethnographic account of al the actants, not just interviewing the photographers but also interrogating the documents and technologies. Such an approach would certainly have allowed me to amass evidence of the relations and processes in play, the way the jpeg protocol achieved a form of hegemony, the way photographers are enfolded with their technologies – hardware and software, as well as adding a diachronic account of networks and objects in process. What it would not have allowed me to do was explore the edges of the issue. While it would enable me to amass evidence of what jpeg apparatuses do, it would not have allowed me to explore the limits of that jpeg apparatus by looking at what non-jpeg apparatuses do.

It is here where a practice-research methodology can come in. By using myself, or more correctly my practice as the subject, I can see how jpeg changes my (a photographer’s) understanding of the decisive moment, the photo work and the photographer. By building and using jpeg and non-jpeg apparatuses as a photographer I can amass evidence of those shifts and the extent to which they are connected to jpeg or connected to something else.

My first apparatus – the within protocol apparatus (consisting of code objects within a mashup and computer) – allowed me to trace my sense of what photography was and how I as photographer conceptualised that when jpeg was made the central focus and object.

My second apparatus – the outside protocol apparatus (consisting of analog objects such as a Leica, a Belplasca and Kodachrome) – allowed me to map my understanding of photography and the photographer within the current scopic regime but outside of jpeg.

The third apparatus – the beyond protocol apparatus (consisting of digital objects such as a camera, wireless card and software and hardware network components) – enabled me to not only explore the experience of jpeg photography (through simultaneously using and refusing its workings), but also explore the limits of photography itself by intervening and unsettling the network mix of which jpeg is a part.

It is only by refusing to use, using and abusing jpeg as a photographer, that I can approach the experience of jpeg-enfolded imaging. It is only by taking myself and my practice as photographer as the object of analysis that the limits and connections of the jpeg object can become apparent. As Adrian Mackenzie argues in his analysis of WiFi and wireless technologies, such technosocial assemblages, ecologies or topologies must be addressed as experience. Practice-research offers a powerful way of rising to that challenge.

What is more such a methodology offers the ‘evidence’ of how objects exist and work – as entities that exceed their relations yet connect; that are always actual; and that are powerful actants – that allows us to build an object-oriented account of protocol, software, media and imaging.

NB: edited 28.03.11 to reorder and rename apparatuses.