Why look at animated GIFs now? They are one of the first forms of image native to computer networks making them charmingly passé, a characteristic that gives them contradictory longevity. Animated GIFs crystallise a form of the combination of computing and the camera. As photography moves almost entirely into digital modes, the fascination with such quirky formats increases. The story of photography will be, in no small part, that of its file formats, the kinds of compression and storage it undergoes, as they in turn produce what is conjurable as an image.
The Graphics Interchange Format was first developed through the computer network firm Compuserve. As an eight-bit file format it introduced the amazing spectacle of 256 colour images to be won over the thin lines of dial-up connections. Due to this, when a picture is converted to GIF, it’s likely that posterization occurs – where gradations of tone turn to patches of reduced numbers of colours. Such aliasing introduces a key part of their aesthetic, something described by the Lempel-Ziv-Welch (LZW) compression that lies at the format’s core. Characteristic of images in the present era its history is entangled with the imaginings and instruments of “intellectual property”. The LZW format was itself the site for a protracted and infamous attempt at patent enforcement in the USA that dragged on from 1994 until 2003 prompting the rapid development of the alternative PNG format.
The animated GIF simply combines several files, their sequence ordered by additional data stored in other parts of the file. It’s a way of making an animation that, compared to the later possibilities of say Flash or AJAX is relatively clunky, if simpler, but it’s a format that is light to load and, as when introduced as a feature of the second version of the Netscape browser, required only standard software.
The animated GIF provides a form of image that is in certain senses both still and moving. It introduces the form of the loop into the static image. As photographs are coupled with small snatches of sound, links to text, become video, or provide means of passing steganographically hidden code, they index the more general mutations in culture engendered by computation in an uneasy, exciting and catchy state. As well as being photographic, they can also be drawn as with many of those composed or gathered by artists such as Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenscheid. Their ongoing meticulous attention to digital folklore, exemplifies the most eye-catching things on the web in its years of genesis. More recently, platforms for video to GIF conversion or similar simple features in popular image-editing applications have hooked the format into the newer networks of phones and the economies of copying and sharing that keep the networks buzzing with eye-catching snippets. The animated GIF allowed pixels to dance. It turned compression formats into pop culture and, with its patent now thankfully expired, looks set to do so for a few repeats more.
Matthew Fuller works at the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London.