Animated GIFs, junk or art?


(c) Beck and Burg Cinemagraph animated GIF from Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg

Are animated GIFs the stuff of junior highschool hijinks or, are they the political cartoons of the new millenium? What do you think? This was the question from’s Mind The Gap.

OK, let’s start with a little about graphic file formats. The file formats used on the web are changing. At one time the GIF was king. The format was developed by CompuServe, the first major commercial online service in the US. It is limited to just 256 different colours in each image. It’s a ”lossless” format in that no information is thrown out during the compression. Over time the low colour resolution meant it was overtaken by JPEG which offered more colour fidelity but does lose information when compressing the image. Now even JPEG is starting to wane and most people are changing to PNG, back to a lossless format.

There is one place where GIF still reigns, neither JPEG or PNG offer any ability to have those short animations of the animated GIF. This year the format celebrated it’s 25th birthday.

So does the animated GIF offer anything other than short animations of cats, dogs and babies doing amusing things? Can we find art or commentary in the format?

The truth falls somewhere in the middle. While the vast majority of them are just ”highschool hijinks” it is possible to find examples that are lifted above this. There are some that become art.

I’m a great believer in art, a lover of art. I also believe that art can be found in many places, not just hanging on the walls of large stone buildings titled ”Gallery”. I appreciate the art in many places such as paper folding, painted on building walls, on the stage of a theatre and in a well written novel just to name a few of my favourites.

I don’t know about political cartoons but photographer Jamie Beck and motion graphic artist Kevin Burg have used the GIF format to create what can only be described as art. Art is something that touches you, informs you, makes you think. Beck and Burg produce photographs with a small amount of movement that do just that.

They call them cinemagraphs, more than a picture but less than a video. They are like a moment in time brought to life in this file format. You can see them here and here. These are photographic gems that could be done no other way than by animated GIF.

This trend of animated GIF as art is seemingly a new one but more and more artists are exploring it. While the work of Beck and Burg was the first I saw they are not alone. A search at DesignBoom for articles tagged animated-gif-art brings up over a dozen other articles about artists exploring the use of the medium in interesting ways. Among them another favourite of mine, the DANSE$ project from Ryan Enn Hughes that he describes as ”combining aspects of photography, motion pictures and painting in a digital environment.” Hughes work moves away from the realism of Beck and Burg into a style reminiscent of impressionist paintings.

Earlier this year The Photographer’s Gallery in London had an exhibition of animated GIFs.

“In a world where most Digital SLR cameras can shoot high definition video, digital technology raises questions concerning what a photograph is and how we make sense of it,” said Katrina Sluis, the curator of a digital series that begins with the animated GIF exhibit, in a statement. “Our opening show embraces the animated GIF as a uniquely screen-based image.”

Is the animated GIF the political cartoon of the new millenium? Perhaps not but this format is certainly more than high school hijinks. The web is as broad as it is deep and just like everything else; Instagram, Flickr, YouTube, Tumblr and even WordPress blogs; it is possible to find the juvenile, the silly and the amusing but it is also possible, in all of those places to find more — intelligence, taste, skill and yes, art.

31 thoughts on “Animated GIFs, junk or art?

  1. Pingback: The Animated GIF: The Antithesis of Mindfulness « everyday gurus

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