Over the past decade, there's been a resurged pop-fascination with GIFs. While much of this has been couched in millennial-targeted apps like GIPHY, and brand powerhouses like Mr. Gif, there's a gamut of art photographers using the medium to reimagine photography's potential, and to explore a range of cultural and political ideas. J. Wesley Brown's 2011 series Inversion, for example, is a sequence of self-described "inanimate animated GIFS" made from still photographs, presented online, that gradually shift through multiple frames and manifestations. While much of today's popular GIF culture focuses on quick, meme-y image bursts, Brown's are slowed down, compelling viewers to rethink how they experience and understand imagery -- both on screens and in physical form.
In this work, Brown, who grew up printing in the darkroom, and whose other work bends towards street and narrative-driven photography, sought to explore its digital parallels by creating what he sees as a new kind of photographic negative. For Brown, Inversion, despite their clear, digital process, is a metaphorical return to an analog way of thinking. We spoke with Brown to learn more about his ideas and process.
Editors Note: Please spend enough time with each image see its entire sequence through, roughly 15 seconds. We know it's tempting to skip on by, but we promise it's worth your while.
Jon Feinstein: What inspired this series?
J. Wesley Brown: I was in a long line for pizza in a casino in Las Vegas for a bachelor party and for about ten minutes, was watching this fourteen-year-old in front of me endlessly scrolling through her Instagram feed, quickly liking nearly everything as she scrolled. I was amazed by the speed at which she did this. Would she even remember any of the photos she’s “liked” ten minutes later? Would any of them impact or stick with her? It seemed the culmination of a problem that I had been perceiving with digital photography on the internet. We see images so quickly and move on, especially with scrolling sites. A picture that a photographer may have spent an hour with in the darkroom or in PS trying to perfect according to their vision while thinking about its various intricacies and meanings before putting it out into the world is now just blown past without contemplation.
We all have our pet peeves or strong opinions and at the time, I was really against photographers’ websites with side-scrolling. These leave no room for the photos to breathe, seem to bleed into one another, and the viewer rarely truly lingers on an image. When do you go to a gallery and see twenty hung photos all in a row bumped up against one another?
So I guess it was born out of early onset grumpiness in a way but also out of a real concern as an image maker that I had with people no longer really taking an image in. Inversion was partly a way to attempt to get the online viewer to slow down with an image and really look and consider it in different ways.
Jon Feinstein: This work is a lot different, quieter, slow-cooked than much of the punchy, fast paced gif work that's been getting a lot of attention over the past few years. How do you think your approach and ideas stand apart from that?
J. Wesley Brown: I did spend a lot of time with each trying to figure out what iterations would work best and how long each should appear. I tried to keep the sequence loops at around 20 seconds but within each one, I’d spend maybe an hour trying out different timing and order between each version. Sometimes one would need to be up for a while before it sort of burned into my eye and made the next jump work. I talk about the subliminal aspect of the switch in my statement. Those fast-paced small GIFs are meant to grab your attention for a second and are of really low quality so they can be posted anywhere. I wanted these instead to be as close in quality to my normal photos, which means they’re really not supported by a lot of online platforms. Tumblr supported them and then stopped, I assume, to save server space. As a result, it’s been hard to get them out there.
Jon Feinstein: It's also a lot different, at least on the surface, from your other work. How do you think this series stays consistent with other ideas you're addressing in your practice + how does it break from them?
J. Wesley Brown: It may not be the best career advice to follow, but I was never a fan of the one-trick pony model: So and so does such and such and does it really well and then sticks to that for an entire career because that's what people expect from them. Where’s the joy in that? Be brave! Stretch yourself. See what you can do. While I might really like that one thing a certain photographer or artist does their entire career, there is some respect lost. On the other hand, an artist who seems to be a real person with varied interests makes me always curious to see what they’re doing. Cathy Opie might be a good example. I don’t love everything she does but I’m glad she’s challenging herself and trying new things when she very likely could have continued with what she did early on for her whole career and been fine.
Most of my practice deals with problems or challenges that I perceive within photography. Each one was born from something that bothered me or made me wonder about how something could be done or even upended and then I set out to do that. I think I may be a bit of a masochist because I give myself these really difficult challenges that take tons of effort and time. As a result, I often finish a series and then am sick of them and don't want to market them at all, so I appreciate you featuring Inversion here.
At the time, I think I was really railing against conceptual art. It's just where I was then, so I thought I'd try my hand at it as a way of perhaps better understanding it but also to just go through the practice as a challenge and this is what resulted from that exercise.
Jon Feinstein: You have one video piece in this series as well-- where does that fit into all of this?
J. Wesley Brown: The piece begins at the end of a scene in The Blow Up where she is trying to wrestle the camera away from him, along with the images it contains. Since my piece is in reverse, this means we start with her trying to take away his practice – what is his. This seemed a good metaphor for the concerns about contemporary image viewing that the series explores and my attempt to take back the viewer’s attention/time. The walking backward is a sly nod to the idea that we could possibly go back to the way things were before the internet and shortened attention spans.
Jon Feinstein: You have clouds, sea foam, a church group, music fans, even a Giacometti sculpture -- what ties these seemingly disparate images together for you?
J Wesley Brown: I'll quote my statement here:
"Inversion is sequenced following a rough, personal and mystical-philosophical arc beginning with the creation of the universe and ending with death, as a parallel to the creation and ultimate, pending death of negative film as a result of the digital revolution."
So, the clouds might represent the heavens, the foam might be evolutionary life beginning, and then we move into adolescence and growing up, teen years, discovery, falling in and out of love, the Great Financial Crisis, which was a hugely defining moment and shock when I was making this, and then ennui and finally old age and death with the skull. At least that's how I viewed it when selecting and sequencing.
Jon Feinstein: When you originally reached out to me about featuring this work, it was in response to our "Alternative Facts" open call. How do you think this work specifically addresses conflicts of truth?
J. Wesley Brown: When the image rotates through three or four different versions, which is the “right” or true one? When one starts, say, as a black and white inverse image and then you see it in positive color, does it negate the way you first saw it? Which is more real to you? Do you see different things in different versions of the same image? Does an image you really like look awful when presented differently or is it enhanced or imbued with something new? I had these questions in mind while making it and deciding the timing between the switches so your call immediately resonated with me.
Jon Feinstein: Can you tell me a bit about the process (technical etc.) of each piece, start to finish?
J. Wesley Brown: For about six months I'd come home from work and pour through my catalog and just play, really. Inverting things and desaturating them to see what it would look like - which colors were interesting inverted and which were horrendous, which tones looked awful inverted and which worked. I have tons of rejects. It became more intuitive as I went along and became a new way of seeing, which I enjoyed and that made it easier to shoot a few more to round it out. I then moved on to the GIF creation to play with different orders and timing to see if the stills versions worked as a whole.
Jon Feinstein: While this work was made in 2011, I can see it, it seems to have a lot of parallels to today's news media, our current political climate, political and cultural silos, etc. Would you agree?
J. Wesley Brown: Sure, I could certainly see parallels between how the media treated and presented the Sanders campaign vs Clinton's or Clinton's vs Trump's and now here we are with an administration that tries to force its own version of reality (alternative reality) on the public and then refuses to admit to its constant lies. When we are being fed a steady and consistent diet of shock and awe events and crazy tweets and blatant obfuscations, we all become desensitized to it and it becomes normal. What should be a truly shocking event becomes just another in a long line of them. Sort of like the constant stream of images we barely register as we scroll through our feeds each day.
Bio: J. Wesley Brown is a photography-based artist who lives and works in LA. His work, which has been internationally exhibited, largely explores isolation and loneliness, often in the darkness of night where he makes most of his pictures.