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Magnified Smartphone Screens Create Pixelated Masterpieces

Simon Pyle's 'Landscapes' photo series explores what happens when you photograph a smartphone with a microscope.

by Beckett Mufson
05 November 2014, 9:00pm

Images courtesy of the artist

What you're looking at is an unadorned smarphone screen, magnified hundreds of times to illuminate the black gaps between its pixels. It's hard to tell, but the photos in the series entitled Landscapes are actually picturesque vistas taken by photographer Simon Pyle displayed on a smartphone and recaptured with a microscopic lens.

In the low resolutions offered by such up-close perspectives (about 40 x 30px), the rivers and sunsets are reduced to abstract grids of red, green, and blue dots. "If a landscape is a photograph of a place," Pyle told The Creators Project, "my work is one step further removed." The photographer captures not just the people, places, and things he sees around him, but the actual medium he has chosen to capture it all through.

This isn't Pyle's first foray into meta photography: in lo-fi installation, The Cave, Pyle converted four 35mm camera boxes into camera obscuras, using an oil lamp to project images onto surrounding walls. A project called Jpeg Decay led him to degrade an image through repetitive, lossy saving, turning an image of a serene river into a glitched-out facsimile of itself. In the precursor to Landscapes, a project called Screens, Pyle captured the remarkable decay that occurs in digital photography, even on a non-microscopic level.

With Landscapes, Pyle rides that train of thought even further, capturing pixels in their basest, most isolated forms. An unusal side-effect of his technique is that large, high quality versions of his images look almost completely abstract, as pictured below. Smaller frames reveal the outline of a sunset or a mountainside, as pictured below.

The Creators Project spoke to Pyle about his creative process, why he decided to put a smartphone under a microscope, and how the logic-defying illusion that defines his new photo series works.

Image from Screens, 2014

The Creators Project: Why did you decide to call the photo set Landscapes?

Simon Pyle: I'm interested in the landscape both as a fine art genre and as a vernacular practice, by which I mean the tendency of people to see a beautiful place and pull out the phone and take a picture.

If a landscape is a photograph of a place, my work is one step further removed. The subject is the landscape photograph itself, not the place. These are photographs of a photograph of a place. I wanted to call attention to that distance between the experience of a place and its depiction in a photograph. The result contains only hints of the original.

Can you briefly take me through the microscope photography process?

I start by taking a regular digital photograph, usually with my DSLR, sometimes with a smartphone. Because the image becomes softer than the original, I have had to retrain my eye to find views that will read as legible or interesting when re-photographed. 

Many of my source images are not great photographs on their own, but I think that's appropriate for a project inspired by the mundane act of snapping a photo on a smartphone. In any case, I choose images that improve as their fidelity worsens. In general, I am drawn to the aesthetics of low resolution or what Hito Steyerl calls the "poor image."

When I started photographing screens, I was using an 8x10" film view camera and an LCD computer screen. Now I've started use a microscope photography setup to photograph smartphone screens. I have a number of phones that I use, each with different resolutions and pixel shapes. 

I transfer my original photograph to a phone and shrink it to the field of view of my microscope. You can count the pixels in the image to get a sense of the resolution; it's somewhere between ten and a hundred pixels square, depending on the magnification. I use anywhere between 10X to 40X magnification, depending on the phone and the image.

One of the trickier parts is determining the size of the final print. I've reproduced these images anywhere between 12 inches and 12 feet wide, and the images become more figurative or abstract depending on the scale.

What drove you to first examine a phone screen under a microscope?

My previous project, Jpeg Decay, involved looking closely at jpeg files. Using the inherent lossiness in the compression algorithm, I repeatedly saved jpeg files hundreds of thousands of times. Every time the file was saved, some elements became stronger and others slowly disappeared, which is similar to how our own memories work.

This got me thinking about other fundamental elements of digital photography, and I realized that many photographs spend their entire lives on screens. Instead of looking at a scene through a viewfinder, recording to film, and making a print, we now look at a camera or phone screen to save a file that will then most likely be viewed on another screen.

Photographs exist as both an image (the picture) and an object (the print or the screen) and it's easy to forget that latter aspect. Screens tend to disappear. The writer Steven Connor influenced my focus on screens. He makes the good point that a screen is something that both reveals and conceals. Screens also serve as a boundary between you and what's on the other side. When a screen is off, it's an empty black mirror. When it's on, the screen disappears. Instead we see the image that it projects. So I wanted to defeat that disappearance in some way.

The River Lethe (Jpeg Decay), 2013

The optical illusion whereby the enlarged images in Landscapes look abstract, while the smaller versions look recognizable is the inverse of common internet instinct. Can you explain how that illusion works?

It's interesting that you mention the internet in this context, because I think of the images as being visual representations of aspects of information theory.

In any LCD screen there are minuscule gaps and edges that we can't see with the naked eye. These photographs have a fixed amount of information in them. Each pixel adds a piece of information that our brain can assemble into an overall image. Because there is more black space than picture elements, as the image size increases, the decreasing ratio of signal to noise overwhelms our ability to recreate an image from a small amount of information.

In other words, as the pixels move farther apart, our brains have a harder time filling in the gaps to complete an image. As the images move between abstract and figurative, you can see how much of looking at screens is the result of our own visual interpolation to resolve an image. The photographs show the distance between what is actually there and what we perceive.

My favorite part is that one good way to view one of these images is to look at it through a smartphone camera. What looks abstract when directly viewed becomes a recognizable image when shrunk down onto your personal screen.

Americans look at screens for about 450 minutes a day, according to a study from earlier this year. What does Landscapes say about our how we experience the world through screens?

I'm often asked whether I'm in favor or against screens. This work isn't intended to pass judgment on screens and screen time. I just want people to be aware of what happens when they look at screens, how they work, and how they might cause a different way of seeing. It's a bit like showing the individual frames of a film strip to demonstrate how the illusion of movement is created.

Personally, I do find that too much screen time makes it easy for me to favor vision over my other senses. Too often I'll look away from a computer to realize that I've been typing in a strange hunched position for hours. I've also started to reconsider how I use photography as a traveler.

Landscapes follows a path begun by your previous work, Screens. Can you tell me about your growth as an artist between those two works?

Landscapes furthers some of the ideas I started working through in Screens. Landscapes was largely a result of a year in residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts, an art center in a national park just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I spent much of my time walking the trails while alternately putting myself in the mindset of a landscape photographer/artist and a snap-happy tourist. In Screens I was looking at the physical screens, whereas in Landscapes I spent more time thinking about the relationship between the original location and the resulting image.

Screens, 2014

What's next for you?

Right now, I'm working with all sorts of mediums: cement, receipt printers, and photogravure, to name a few. I'm revisiting Concrete Golem and Midden City, two projects that combine concrete and photographs to make portraits of people and places. I'm polishing a performative piece where I give out receipts for social interactions, and I'm in the process of pulling prints from some photogravure plates I recently made at Crown Point Press.

I also just moved to Chicago, so I'm enjoying my explorations of a great new city and art scene.

Simon Pyle's photographs can be seen at the Incline Gallery in San Francisco through Nov. 30. Visit his website here to find more of his mixed-media experiements.


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optical illusion
pixel art
digital photography
information theory
microscopic art
between pixels
low resolution
microscope photography
simon pyle