It’s a kind of magic [introduction]

When I started as a photographer, there was magic. A moment after putting the piece of paper in the dish and gently agitating the clear liquid over its surface an image gradually appeared. If all went well, the blacks deepened while the whites remained clear and the greys neatly spaces out between. If not I would take the paper out of the dish and breath on an area of the emerging image, the heat of my breath would speed up the chemical reactions darkening the area. This was the last step in a series of magical processes, the measuring of the light, choosing the aperture and shutter combination that following Ansel Adams’ ‘zone system’ gave me the tonal range I saw; the chemical manipulation of silver halides and the emergence of the negative from the tank; the shadow play of burning and dodging beneath the beam of the enlarger and that final emergence. As a photographer I connected objects and worked magic. Photography is a complex assemblage of human and unhuman objects. The photographer, the camera, film and its silver mined, bought, sold and traded, gelatine and chemicals bearing the traces of life, paper and forests, media industries, clients, contracts and postmen delivering prints.

As a jpeg photographer, there is magic. Somewhere ‘in’ my camera and computer something happens to turn the light I see into an image that circulates online, that can be seen and embedded and searched and linked, that makes my photograph inevitably social. At the moment of taking and sharing something happens to turn light into data into social data. When I press the button, protocol does the rest. This is magic. Jpeg photography is a complex ecology of human and unhuman objects connecting. The photographer, the camera, the silicon and battery, the factories and poisoned workers, the card and the router, Web 2.0 businesses, servers and the power that runs them, the carbon burnt to keep those searchable archives running, the ‘friend’ and searcher, the IP lawyer.

This project is about that magic and about those objects, specifically one of those objects: protocol, the jpeg standard that locates my photography in a social media space.

I am a jpeg photographer. I photograph the vibrant material, evocative things that Jane Bennett and Sherry Turkle write about, the rags ’n refuse that Walter Benjamin saw as way of writing history. I use jpeg to do it. I photograph things, encode them through jpeg as jpeg/JFIF files, upload them and allow them to circulate as social photographs. Jpeg, as one of the objects in my imaging apparatus and practice makes sure people can search for them, see them, download them, share them, embed and mash them with other data. My photographs are standards compliant because they were created with standards.

That standards component in my photographic apparatus and practice, that object that generates the magic is weird. It is real. It does things, but we can’t see it or touch it. As soon as it works it is gone. It’s traces and connections are everywhere: in dot jpeg image files, in social media archives and search engines, in data-mining strategies and surveillance practices, in business models, but like Keyser Söze, jpeg just slips out of sight. It withdraws.

I set out to understand that weird object, its nature and its workings. These were my research questions.

This is a practice-research project, I use practice to answer my questions about jpeg. This document is a report on that practice, an account and an analysis of using, refusing and even abusing jpeg and what doing so has taught me about the nature and working of jpeg and the ways it connects with the panoply of other photography objects at work in jpeg imaging. As I discuss in my methodology chapter I developed an object-oriented methodology where I imagined and created three photographic apparatuses, three cameras that used, refused and abused the jpeg protocol as part of their imaging. They were designed to highlight the nature and workings of jpeg. It was my experience of creating and using these cameras that I analyse in this report.

I have taken images during this project. Some have been encoded through jpeg, some through other protocols and some outside of software completely. These photographs are not my central concern nor my objects of analysis in this report. My concern is with using jpeg, with the magic enfolded in the practice of jpeg photography.

My practice is ‘with jpeg’, ‘outside jpeg’ and ‘against jpeg’ photography. My research is an analysis of my experience of working with outside and against jpeg. My report is an account of that practice-research.

This report is structured as follows:

Literature Review chapter: I approach the jpeg protocol as an object. Following an object-oriented philosophy I look to treat all objects in the world at the same level. Jpeg, like me as the photographer, the camera as well as Nikon and Google’s business strategy are all objects, connecting and reconnecting ways that are deeply power-full. In my review of the relevant literature, I look to trace how the digital object and the scopic apparatus have been been seen. I argue that existing accounts of protocol and visual technologies, through their insistence on a relational ontology of objects, have failed to account for the withdrawal yet powerfully connecting nature and role of jpeg. Furthermore I argue that such an insistence locates governmental relations of power – the sort that I have found jpeg to be enfolded in – outside the object and therefore more difficult to counter.

Methodology chapter: I took a particular object-oriented approach to answering my research question. I created three scopic apparatuses from software, hardware, human and unhuman components. Each component was an object in the assemblages I used to explore jpeg. In this chapter I argue firstly why practice was the most relevant way to answer questions about jpeg and secondly why an object-oriented approach was the best way to engage in that practice.

Technology chapter: Before drawing an account of my experience of using these apparatuses and what I found out about the nature and workings of jpeg, I look to explain the technical basis of the standard, how it works technically within the digital imaging pipeline and how it connects technically with other software and protocols.

Conclusions chapter: Over the course of this project, I have used these three apparatuses as part of my photography of vibrant material things (in this case around the edge of the 2012 Olympics site). This practice has enabled me to understand the nature of jpeg, the way it works within our scopic regime as well as the the governmental implications of that nature and that working. This chapter reports those findings.

This chapter begins with the images those cameras produced. True to my argument that my practice and my practice-research is photography not the photographs, these images are the starting point for my discussion. They are the traces of my jpeg (or anti-jpeg) imaging practices – the real object of analysis. I take twelve images and imaging experiences as my starting points.

From my work ‘with jpeg’, I discuss four images and four imaging experiences:

  • A picture ‘taken’ through my web-based screenshot apparatus as well as the experience of imaging with it.
  • A screengrab taken on my phone using an augmented reality App, as well as the experience of imaging it.
  • A geo-screengrab taken on my phone using a GPS-aware social media App, as well as the experience of imaging it.
  • A ‘slideflow’ mashup stream of images, as well as the experience of imaging it.

From my work ‘outside jpeg’, I discuss four stereo Kodachrome images and the experience of producing and consuming them.

From my work ‘against jpeg’, I discuss four jpeg/JFIF and their partner RAW data files as well as the the experience of producing and consuming them.

These twelve images and imaging experiences are my ways into reporting on researching the nature and workings of jpeg. I look to draw out from my own imaging experience what jpeg is and does. These are not discussions of the images, let alone of the things within. They are discussions of the nested objects of which the images are components, the objects-within-object connections that photography and governmentality/photography are built around.

As a report on my personal photographic experience, this chapter cannot be narrowly dry or objective. As a photographer (in my understanding of photography) I am an object in play. This goes beyond the common admission of the role of the researcher to locate him as an equal component within the apparatuses. As such the report on these imaging experiments owes more to the style of Camera Lucida (Barthes 1990) or Another Ways of Telling (Berger & Mohr 1989), perhaps than Thinking Photography (Burgin 1982). It is personal and reflective as much as critical and analytical. From my object-oriented perspective there is no outside from which to report or analyse… and a good thing too. It is only by locating myself as photographer and author within a flat ontology of objects that I can account for those objects – including the jpeg protocol – in governmental play.

  • Barthes, R., 1990, Camera Lucida: Reflections On Photography, Translated by R. Howard. Hill and Wang, New York.
  • Berger, J. & Mohr, J., 1989, Another Way Of Telling, Granta Books, Cambridge.
  • Burgin, V. (ed.), 1982, Thinking Photography, Macmillan, Basingstoke.