The Rhetoric of the JPEG


Session Title:

  • Photography and the Virtual

Presentation Title:

  • The Rhetoric of the JPEG




  • The JPEG, an acronym for the Joint Photographic Experts Group, is a technical standard that specifies how an image is compressed into a stream of bytes and decompressed back into an image. As a method of compression for digital photography closely associated with the World Wide Web, the JPEG is today the default mode by which we experience on-screen images from computer monitors to mobile phones. Curiously taken for granted in discussions around the web and digital photography, this paper argues that attention to the development of file formats provides a method to understand the way a camera ‘sees’, and how digital photographs function online.

    For instance, today’s digital cameras invariably use a related EXIF (Exchangeable Image File) format, to record extra interchange information to image files as they are taken. EXIF data, embedded within the image file itself, includes metadata such as date and time, technical information and, increasingly, geo-coding in the case of GPS-enabled cameras. JPEG/EXIF data therefore includes both the compressed sensor data and a description of the environment in which the image was taken. This paper asks what is at stake in the development and implementation of these common standards? It also looks at contemporary artists who have taken up these ideas and questions in their practice. Ultimately, it proposes that the JPEG – which is only visible by its side effects such as compression artefacts – is an ideological phenomenon and a metaphor for the informationalisation of imaging in general.

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