How the JPEG Changed Everything

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

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

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. 

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019

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