Ten Billion Pixels

High resolution images don’t make us more perceptive. Quite the contrary.

Detail from Hirox Europe’s digital reproduction of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring (1655).

A few weeks ago, Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague and lens manufacturer Hirox Europe made a digital reproduction of Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring (1655) available online. The reproduction is part of a marketing push for a Hirox-produced robot microscope capable of splicing 9,100 images of the Vermeer canvas, which measures only 44.5 x 39 cm. The resulting image, about ten billion pixels, made headlines on various tech sites, presumably because the new composite is around ten times more detailed than the gigapixel-sized images available on Google Arts and Culture. Among the reproduction’s innovations is the ability to see parts of the Vermeer’s surface rendered in 3D, allowing the viewer to form an impression of how the paint was applied. Now that the The National Gallery in Oslo is shut down (pending the opening of the new National Museum), travel is discouraged, and most museums with significant collections of paintings are closed anyway, such composites are the only chance to satisfy a yearning for historical paintings. 

In the new reproduction, a selection of areas are viewable with 140x magnification, including the uppermost of two white spots of lead white paint which represent the pearl earring. It comprises a spot of impasto followed by a translucent tail extending up towards the right. One imagines Vermeer pressing his brush against the canvas, easing the pressure and sweeping slightly upwards. Zooming in completely, the screen is filled with a dusty, uneven, and rugged landscape, resembling satellite imagery of some alien planet, or mould on a wooden surface, rather than a pearl. At the bottom of the mark, at its very right side, there is what looks to be a bristle trapped in the paint. Startlingly, it reminds us that we are in fact inspecting a reproduction of a painting. The screen invites us to dwell on the dust, on spots of pigment and hairline cracks rather than on the figure’s gaze, the ultramarine blue hairband, or the pearl earring depicted as if glimpsed momentarily. With a resolution of ten billion pixels, this composite has unquestionable value from a conservation-technical perspective. At the same time, it seems to cause the painting itself, or at least its subject and composition, to vanish from our sight. 

Ida Ekblad, Ugliness Resists Static Figuration, 2020, oil on linen, 125 x 205 cm. Photo: Peder Lund.

High-resolution images not only affect how the old masters are seen and interpreted; they also impact everyday visual culture, which in turn is absorbed and addressed by new paintings. Ida Ekblad’s exhibition Slice of the Inaccessible at Peder Lund in Oslo is a relevant example. Ekblad’s latest paintings emphasise the contours between shapes rather than complete figures. As a result, her motifs appear magnified, similar to images haphazardly “pinched open” on a touchscreen. Ugliness Resists Static Figuration (2020) is a kind of diptych featuring, on its left, the sparkling blue eye of a manga character enlarged to the point of being unrecognisable. Likewise readable as an enlarged fragment rather than an abstract figure, the painting’s right panel is an accumulation of blue and purple swirls and undulating green lines up against black, the effect reminiscent of calligraphy. Ekblad paints with thick impasto, deep brushstrokes about the width of a finger; her paintings look as if exposed to constant touching. Compared to those in her previous show in Oslo, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2011, these new paintings are livelier, with less of a stylistic debt to historical precursors. Whereas a resolution of ten billion pixels seems to drain the old masters of everything painterly, in Ekblad’s case new screen optics inject an almost boundless energy; the paintings suddenly appear malleable – let’s say swipeable – like screen images. 

Everyday media such as TV and film make it obvious that the alliance between high-resolution formats, advanced optics, image stabilisation, and ever-improving screen technologies change how we see. Almost fifteen years have passed since Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) was first shown. That was around the same time that HD resolutions were being adopted in both TV production and home equipment. The film, which also exists as a multi-screen video installation, follows Zinedine Zidane, one of the most iconic football players of the 1990s and 2000s, through an entire match (Real Madrid versus Villareal at the Santiago Bernabéu on 23 April 2005). A total of seventeen cameras were used, including two equipped with Panavision 300x zoom lenses. The later allowed a degree of optical magnification which is now common in sports broadcasts, but which at the time had been reserved for military purposes. We linger impossibly close to Zidane, on whom the camera remains fixed even during long sequences where he is only indirectly involved in the match, such as large parts of the first half. His frustration and pent-up energy register palpably when the match goes badly. In the ninetieth minute, proceedings crash to a halt, when both Zidane and Villareal’s Quique Álvarez are given red cards for unsportsmanlike shoving.

Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, Zidane, a 21st century portrait, 2006, film still.

Beyond drawing on the affective intensity of a football match, the singular focus on Zidane excises the element that a TV broadcast would normally centre on: the match itself. All those moments you usually take in when you watch football – the interaction between the respective teams, the players’ positioning, who is dominant or losing ground on the field at any given time – disappear, replaced by an all-consuming single node. Of course, high-resolution images do not presuppose that the camera dwells up close – as is it does almost exclusively in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait – but ultra-closeup shots are stunningly able to surpass what the eye can see without technical assistance; the effect is hypnotic.

High resolution equals more information. A single-colour image comprising ten billion pixels consists of more bits than the same image made up of a thousand pixels. The usefulness or readability of this additional information is less certain, at least as far as human beings are concerned. It seems there is a saturation point after which the usefulness of more optical information decreases, a point which, when reached, reminds us that our optical-cognitive bandwidth is limited. Ekblad’s paintings and Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait are appealing artworks because they are poised on the threshold of this saturation point, as if pulling the aesthetic experience towards a bodily disconnect. The Hirox reproduction ventures beyond this limit, causing the image to appear more useful for machine learning algorithms, and quantitative and technical investigations, than as an object of aesthetic appreciation. 

Hito Steyerl, How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, still from video.

In addition to its impact on the art experience and human cognitive and affective capacities, the question of resolution has political consequences. Hito Steyerl’s How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013) presents a series of speculative (and funny!) strategies for making oneself invisible in the face of increasingly high-resolution images, especially satellite surveillance technologies. Steyerl points out that the concept of visibility connects and intertwines resolution and politics, precisely because visibility is unevenly distributed. Women over 50, the poor, and refugees with no means of identification are among those groups Steyerl places far down the visibility scale. Resolution thus has political implications beyond big data and what surveillance technology can render visible. High-resolution digital images have enabled us to capture the entire earth, but it would be a false claim that such images mirror the world, particularly considering all that we still fail to see. Issues of resolution not only impact the individual, but also regulate social (and political) relations between people. 

The now-widespread QAnon conspiracy theory (according to polls, as many as 17 per cent of Americans believe it to be founded in reality), which claims that Trump is fighting a secret cabal of leading politicians and bureaucrats that have paedophiliac and satanist tendencies, contributed to the former president’s supporters entering the US Congress building in early January this year in protest against the election result. In a commentary that explored the occupation of Congress, but also Trumpism as a political phenomenon, Jacques Rancière writes that it would be overly simplistic to simply dismiss Trump supporters as idiots – people who, due to a lack of education, allow themselves to be misled by conspiracy theories and fake news. To reject the obvious, that which is confirmed as fact, is precisely about demonstrating one’s intelligence, Rancière claims. News stories and commentaries that claim to decipher causes and effects are abundant, and we are encouraged to remain vigilant and critical, for all such messages are potential carriers of hidden ideological agendas. Rancière describes this logic as “a sign of a perversion inscribed in the very structure of our reason.” One parallel to Steyerl in Rancière’s analysis is the point that more information – more pixels, more images, more news, more bits and bytes – does not necessarily mean that we see anything other than what we want to see. 

The average Q supporter does not literally believe that leading American politicians and bureaucrats are part of a worldwide paedophile-satanist conspiracy, but would like it to be truthful because it would justify his or her sense of moral superiority. During Trump’s last speech as president, several observant Q supporters noticed that there were seventeen American flags behind the stage. This number is an important part of the Q mythology, as Q is the seventeenth letter in the alphabet. In discussions on various online forums, this was interpreted as a sign that Trump, assisted by the mysterious Q and the US military, would arrest Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton and declare the 2020 election result fraudulent. Trump was about to step down, but for Q supporters, the real message resided in the flags; here was the fraction of the total picture that confirmed what they already knew as the truth.

More pixels (more information) entail new aesthetic effects, but may also – as exemplified by the reproduction of Girl With a Pearl Earring – cause the totality to disappear. We struggle to see the pearl earring, the figure’s gaze, the ultramarine hair band that breaks away from the chiaroscuro – arguably, important details – because we are lured by a fascination with specks of dust in the paint surface. This does not mean that the greater fidelity offered by high-resolution images has some inherent moral character, or that exposure necessitates conspiratorial thinking. However, our blind spots are made no clearer to us by the fact that the images we navigate with are more detailed and better suited to capturing our attention. The barrage of images of Trump supporters in confrontations with security guards, police, and members of Congress that were made public as part of Trump’s recent impeachment trial does little to make the systemic flaws in America’s democracy visible to the majority of media consumers. What we are witnessing is images’ ability to divert attention from the issue. 

Detail from Hirox Europe’s digital reproduction of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring (1655).