Compression Degradation
A series of large digital photographic prints which have been visually disintegrated by the application of an unusually brutal amount of JPEG compression.

Created April 2002 for the Santa Cruz Digital Arts Festival. The prints are 34 x 51 inches. They are intended to be seen as large prints, so an on-screen simulation of the proper scale is included; but this does not replicate the hard-copy meatspace experience. The thumbnails here represent the size of your visual image of the prints at a viewing distance of about 45 feet.

Click thumbnail to enlarge; keep clicking to zoom in further (effect does not work in Safari).

Here's a mockup of the show in a gallery.

Please read the additional info below, and follow the link on mathematics of compression.

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beginning of 2nd series:
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Perversion of Technology

JPEG compression is used daily by millions of people, whether they know it or not. It is the main technology used for minimizing the file size of images on the internet, and of images captured with consumer digital cameras. JPEG (named after the Joint Photographic Experts Group, who developed the standard) is a remarkably effective compression method. File sizes can often be reduced to as little as one fiftieth of the original, with acceptable quality results. The most interesting thing about JPEG is that it is a "lossy" compression scheme; that is, quality is lost in the compression. The more compression one uses, the more degradation occurs in the image. The usual approach of web designers or engineers who use JPEG is to find a balance point where good savings have been achieved in file size (for efficient internet transmission or digital storage), but sufficient image quality has been maintained for the application at hand.

In this project, I have taken this very effective technology and perverted it for my own peculiar purposes. I found that the application of unusually severe JPEG compression causes the image to degrade in very interesting ways. One feature of JPEG is that it separates the image into 8 by 8 pixel squares, and handles each of these squares differently. This is normally not visible. But when taken to the extreme and blown up very large, these 64-pixel squares turn into gradients, grids, and other patterns, often exhibiting unexpected colors. Viewed close up, the pictures appear to be abstract art or a sensless jumble of color. From a distance, the original image resolves itself. I personally find this fascinating and mesmerizing.

A utilitarian side benefit of this method is the tremendous savings in file size. A 34 by 51 inch photo printed at normal quality by the methods I have used would require a 198.5 megabyte file. My well-compressed JPEG files are a little over 2 kilobytes, giving a disk space savings of about 99.99 percent.

(Note: previous paragraph was an obscure nerdy dry joke joke).

As for the content--the pictures are from my archives. I chose photos with qualities that I would describe as "snapshot" or "cinematic"; pictures which in themselves appear very ordinary. These "slice-of-life" images have a sort of emotional and conceptual transparancy; they provide a good platform for a concept and a look to be overlaid on, much as a piece of bread serves as a substrate for delivery of an unusual sauce.


The pictures do not present a mathematically pure vision of compression algorithms; I have enhanced the color and contrast to accentuate the JPEG artifacts. The prints are 34 x 51 inches on canvas, and were made by Real Color in Santa Cruz, CA with an HP 5000 PS printer. Media and archival pigments donated by Hewlett-Packard for the Santa Cruz Digital Arts Festival. The original files are 216 x 144 pixels. Resolution is 4.235 dpi.

A word on the mathematics of compression