What do gifs want?

W.J.T. Mitchell’s classic book asks, What do pictures want? That is, what is it exactly that visuals do and how do they do it? Since this relatively early salvo into the thriving interdisciplinary field of visual studies there have been several qualitative and/or quantitative studies of photographs (see Sarah Pink, Gillian Rose, Kress and van Leeuwen, the list goes on) yet similar analyses on movies have remained elusive. Add music and dialogue and movement and your content analysis is suddenly many many thousands of pages long and ten years in the making.

Yet out of the flashy html mess of the early world wide web comes a digital object that severely erodes the boundary between still photographs and movies–the gif. (Here’s a nice little history of the gif) Even if you don’t remember the rotating skulls and bursting fireballs of the mid-1990s, the animated punctum of Jamie Beck’s photography probably caught your attention:

Beck calls these gifs cinemagraphs, and they resist classification as photographs or as movies, but play with elements of both. The constant loop of the movement in a gif is a fantastic synesthetic citation of digital music.

On the less “high-art” side of the spectrum is the admittedly low-brow joke gifs, a joke on a digital gum wrapper, the low rez and jagged movement unconsciously exuding a Lumiere brothers quality. My favorite being, of course, Animals Being Dicks.

They tell the shortest story, the briefest moment of time, soundlessly and then on loop. The first viewing is confusing, surprising, then we watch the clip with full knowledge on the second run through, anticipating the joke, and then a third, relishing the details we missed on the first or second pass.

I’ve been experimenting a little with the very short video form, not yet gifs, but similar:

There are a couple of programs that you can use to apply hipstamatic-like filters to your videos that are fun to play with, but you can also edit it on youtube using their tools. Obviously I haven’t fully explored the medium, but it is a good change for me from the hyper-focus on photography. The tiny film/gif pushes at the boundaries between video and photography, with occasionally delightful results.

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