Online images seem to acquire a “patina” of sorts as they pass through the hands of many websites — each time being saved and re-compressed as a new image that is in fact very old. Indeed, JPEG compression is one of the few ways to tell that an image is old and circulated, without actually knowing the creation date of the image. JPEG compression enforces aging, since this compression is applied everytime an image is saved in that format.

We can appreciate the patina of modern materials like plastic, which now form a large part of the material culture in which we live. Now personally, I still find plastic and especially aged or old plastic to be nothing worth appreciating; however, as these materials are increasingly common in our visual landscape we have to create a visual language and appreciation of them in order to increase their beauty, longevity, and usefulness to us. In a way, we are using aesthetics to improve consumption. Though I would naturally be inclined to argue that there is no inherit beauty to old plastic, I can’t be sure if that is actually true or just true today, since there isn’t “connoisseurship” around aged plastic like there is around aged wood or metal. A large part of aesthetic appreciation is taught to us by various authorities and the marketplace that exists for things. Nothing new there.

So then, can we appreciate age in a digital world? And does an aesthetics of age even have a place in the digital landscape? In a digital world, age is almost non-existent: the physical objects that store data do age, but it does not manifest itself on the data. If we apply aesthetic rules for “old” things on the internet, we may or may not find anything useful there. Computers stamp a creation date, but I'm speaking more to age as interpreted through aesthetics and the visual field. For example, a more heavily compressed image would have a greater “patina” and thus be considered more precious. There is some silliness in this as to how easy it is to compress images instantly as opposed to actual age taking place through long periods of time.

Automatic JPEG compression is a happy accident, in my mind, that mimics the real world: a technical manifestation that things will age regardless of what we want or do. Based on an algorithm, certain data within the image is simply discarded forever and saved nowhere much like old materials that lose varnish or paint. JPEG images, each time they are saved, will “age” regardless of what we do: it’s built into its algorithm.

Then I wonder, is an older JPEG more beautiful than a new one? Is their something their to appreciate?

Graphic source: unknown. Source of original painting, Madonna orante (The Virgin in Prayer) by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (c. 1645), The National Gallery, London.