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.
First published in Issue 200