Turner’s early films (Image courtesy Hyperallergic)

EDMONTON, Alberta — When British inventor Edward Raymond Turner patented his color moving images in 1899, they were viewed as a failure: His clips often came out blurry. Undeterred, Turner continued with his arduous method — photographing successive frames of black-and-white film through colored filters — into the next century and up until his untimely death in 1903 (he was 29). Three years later, George Albert Smith released his Kinemacolor system, or what is widely acknowledged as the machine that made the first successful color motion pictures.

This month, the National Media Museum came out with news that recast this history, restoring Turner’s color films and proving them to be anything but a blurry failure. They are brilliant, and you can watch them in crystal clarity here!

Turner’s films are striking not only because of their relative modernity in their early context, but because these images — jerky, disjointed, and full of spilling colors — still manage to convey the liveliness of physical motions now long past. Do we view them differently than Turner’s contemporaries might have? Of course. We might also, however, find them more spectacular than his unimpressed viewers did.

Over the past century, color films have hit the big time. These days, no one makes a black-and-white movie, unless it’s on purpose, as was the case with Michel Hazanavicius’s recent film The Artist. Hazanavicius reversed Turner and Smith’s innovations, but did so in a way that made viewers more, not less, aware of what they were watching. Maybe it’s the shock of the old.

GIF from “The Artist” (Image courtesy totalfilms.tumblr.com)

This purposeful mash-up of the old and new, employing an old aesthetic in a new context, also takes place online. The now-ubiquitous animated GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) image has been revived on the internet 25 years after it was first designed by Compuserve. Like Hazanavicius’s The Artist, moving GIFs express newness through the medium of the explicitly old. Seen as the quaint markers of a pre-Flash world wide web, GIFs’ ongoing renaissance over the past half-decade places them in an online context that marks their vintage aesthetic difference as a notable appeal rather than an intrusive deficiency.

GIFs have become so pervasive to have merited categorization, as well as explanation and analysis. So how to define a GIF today? Reddit is, for example, rather militant about keeping their “Cinemagraphic” GIFs in a rarefied cultural air. Cinemagraphs are described as “beyond just animated gifs.” They are “photographs with movement […] about atmosphere, not action.” In short, they are “artistic,” and should be carefully differentiated from the general category of frenetic action set on a loop. Should a GIF be something you can monetize, such as artist Kim Asendorf’s “GIF Market“? The implied currency of the GIF seems to lay in its being a shareable media, so I remain hesitant, if also curious, about what it means to mark a GIF’s source of value as its singularity.

Dogfishhead Brewery cinemagram (Image courtesy NYTimes.com)

By now, there is even a relatively significant contingent of people creating and theorizing GIFs as art, which indicates that the form has finally arrived — perhaps to a point where many begin to wish it had never started to come into the zeitgeist at all. Does the image remain a GIF when transferred to the gallery, or should GIFs remain online? For the most part, questions over what makes a GIF into art often feel more conceptual than anything else.

The first GIFs had no pretense to being art. The first popular set of GIFs were moving images that signed (quite literally) that a site was under construction. “Under Construction” GIFs signaled, either literally or visually, a single message: http://www.cs.utah.edu/~gk/atwork/

GIFs have since evolved, now signalling a range of messages and affects. Such diversity is propelled not only by more online users ready to create their own clips, but also a greater variety of platforms ready to host them. The abundance of GIFs on the visually-oriented social network Tumblr might even seem obvious now, what with its capacity for viral sharing through endless reblogging. Tumblr incidentally launched the same year GIFs began to return to vogue, during 2007.

Whatever linguistic message is communicated, contemporary GIFs all emphasize a kind of aesthetic (and thus affective) dynamism by the sheer fact of their mobile quality. While glitch GIFs don’t communicate much narrative content, through their endlessly interrupted movements they underline the irrationality implicit in any endlessly looping image.

“Pierrot Le Fou” glitch GIF (Image courtesy glitchgifs.tumblr.com)

It goes without saying that many GIFs are remixed from various image sources. The superimposition of aesthetically disparate shapes and images is even emphasized —the glitch writ large. It doesn’t have to look realistic to be a great GIF; in fact, it’s probably better the weirder its patchwork imagery is.

Perhaps it should only be expected that clips from mainstream movies would come to constitute the largest genre of GIFs. Not only is the cinematic tie-in as old as Turner’s early color films, but most contemporary GIFs are rooted in specific pop cultural references. In contrast to the first signage GIFs, movie GIFs deliver multiple messages at the level of both content and medium. The Film GIF nods to the specific item of pop culture, as well as to the verbal or gestural content of the excerpted moment.

GIF Archetypes

There are television GIFs, some from cable shows:

Mad Men GIF (Image courtesy tumblr.com)

And others from less scripted events:

Kirsten Dunst looking embarrassed by Lars von Trier (Image courtesy fourfour.typepad.com)

How about GIFs on a TV?

On news sites, the most common GIFs are those pertaining to sports:

Gabby Douglas Olympics GIF (Image courtesy atlanticwire.com)

Fashion GIFs are often used for advertising:

Calvin Klein GIF (Image courtesy Calvin Klein)

The impulse to freeze an animated GIF is part of its addictive appeal. Like the catchy hook, the GIF is frequently a highlight of some climactic or memorable moments one wishes would run on forever. Until, of course, the moment starts to overwhelm in its isolation. “Rubbable GIFs” (actually embedded Javascript code and not true GIFs at all) allow the viewer the ability to delay the moving GIF — to stretch out its constant flow of images — if only momentarily.

As if GIFs weren’t already dynamic enough, they are now found in 3D in formats generated by splitting the animation with vertical white bars in order to generate different points of focus:

“3D” GIF (Image courtesy reddit.com)

Like Turner’s films, GIFs are for the most part, silent. There are now, however, a contingent of GIFs accompanied by sounds.

These days, GIFs can simultaneously move and speak in 3D, but they haven’t come any closer to approximating real life than Turner’s films. But that’s not really the point. If GIFs, like films, evoke life, then they are also fixated on the aura of death. Reed & Rader’s GIFs emphasize precisely the haunting quality of moving images, while Stephanie Davidson makes GIFs that focus on themes such as Ouija boards, black magic, and spirits from the afterlife.

Reed+Rader’s haunting GIF (Image courtesy reedandrader.com)

GIFs today are about the archive. They move to resurrect the past as much as finally to return to it; they focus on a moment, freezing an event while simultaneously trying to keep it living, as effervescent as ever. Sometimes the difference lies in a fraction of a second. The true GIF celebrates imperfection, where flickers and flawed loops maintain the possibility of something different — something alive — entering the picture.

NYPL’s sculpture hall GIFs (Image courtesy stereo.nypl.org)

Jane Hu writes for The Awl, the LARB, and The New Inquiry. She's studies the Victorian novel and television, with art historical interests that are, apparently, "very 1996."

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