Tag Archives: deconstructing the image

Assignment 2 – Deconstructing the Digital Image: a Materialist approach

An object is frequently not seen, from not knowing how to see it, rather than any defect in the organ of vision. (Babbage, 1830)[1]

This assignment follows on from my previous one, in that it also considers the material nature of the photograph, but in this case the digital image. The concept of materiality with regard to photography is now well-embedded in academic culture, but on the whole it tends to focus on analogue photographs, with their physical characteristics of paper and ink. Rachel Smith’s fascinating OCA Symposium lecture [2] discusses the ‘object’ nature of the analogue image in detail, including its surface, location, the processes involved and its history. She considers Geoffrey Batchen’s idea that the photograph consists of both a subject and an object, and that generally people look past the object to the subject without really seeing it. ‘In order to see what a photograph is of, we need to supress our consciousness of what it is.’ (Batchen, 1997:2)[3] The notion of materiality refutes that concept and argues that the object itself carries contextualisation and meaning which adds to the viewing experience. I have written a separate post about this and some photographers who consider this in their work here [4].

It has also been argued that the rise in interest in materiality has come as a result of the the so-called ‘death of the analogue’, with the appearance of the digital image and its apparent lack of material characteristics. Smith argues that time has the same degrading effect on the digital image as occurs with an analogue photograph, through glitches, altering metadata and missing pixels instead of scratches, dustmarks, etc. and that one can think of the digital image as material despite its lack of physicality. Joanna Sassoon posits that the photograph can be considered as a multilayered laminated object in which meaning is derived from a symbiotic relationship between materiality, content and context. (Sassoon, 2004:189) [5] either separately or together, but that the digital image lacks the material aspect. Smith, on the other hand argues that the vehicle for the image (the phone, laptop, screen) should necessarily be viewed as part of its materiality. The phone screen is the same as a sheet of photopaper in its function, i.e. that of carrying the image.

While Barthes talks about a photograph’s inseperable relationship to its subject in Camera Lucida (Barthes, 1980;13)[6],  Fontcuberta (2014:62)[7] posits that either the image itself might be the subject of interest, or the object. For example, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s current exhibition in its new Photography galleries offers a very different experience from a regular gallery, with the objects being as important as the images they hold. Fontcuberta encourages us to choose which variables of a digital image we want to alter in order to break the conventionality of the analogue photograph.

Taking this concept of looking at the materiality and layers that make up a digital image, A Derridian deconstructive approach seemed appropriate. Derrida theorised that in order to fully understand anything, one needs to take it apart (deconstruct it) and to examine its constituents. This is the best known part of his theory, but he also adds that the final part of the exploration is to reconstruct the object again. (Derrida, 1983)[8]

In order to present this series as a blog post, I have had to re-photograph the images. Like my two previous assignment, this work is something that is inherently physical in nature and it does not have the same effect when viewed on a screen, either in still or video format. In order to fully understand it, one has to be able to move it around, and raise and lower some of the images. The digital transparencies can be viewed from either side, and their relationship to the images above and below is part of the work. I have therefore included another post on the effects of re-photographing on a piece of original work [9]  and how it can change the meaning of it in ways which may add to, detract from or completely alter that meaning. This is further accompanied by a post on the photographers whose work as influenced my series  [10]and another on how digital images are encoded and decoded. [11]

This physicality has also influenced my choice of presentation. I see this piece as a work in progress, to which I may add other interpretations as I think of them, and that the final assessment presentation will most probably be quite different. At present, it takes the form of a ringbound A5 notebook, to allow the viewer to flip over the pages vertically and reveal the next image. Some images are double sided, some are transparent and others need to be viewed collectively as well as individually. I felt that this format was the simplest way of enabling the viewer to play with the work and to consider the reality of the variations on a theme it includes. As yet, I am unsure how the final version for assessment might look, but it could potentially be similar to a book of wallpaper samples, with a solid spine and looser pages.

Artist’s statement

For this series, I have used a conceptual approach around Derridian deconstruction and the notion of a photograph being both an image and an object to dissect the nature of a digital image into its various elements, each of which has its own reality and potential meaning, both separately and together. I have attempted to ignore the subject and concentrate on the object, but a virtual object – the digital image – rather than a real-life one, and the subject is irrelevant: merely a vehicle to visualise the processes.

Digital images are by their nature virtual. In this work, that virtual reality has to be reconstituted into something solid, that one can hold. By making this a physical book of images, I have tried to blur the lines between the digital/virtual and reality, to consider how they differ and are the same. This book has then been re-photographed, which takes it back into the digital realm.

Assignment images (some of which have been photographed more than once, alone and in combination with another.)

Video version



  1. Babbage, C. (1830). “Reflections on the Decline of Science in England: And on Some of Its Causes, by Charles Babbage (1830). To which is Added On the Alleged Decline of Science in England, by a Foreigner (Gerard Moll) with a Foreword by Michael Faraday (1831).”, p.210 [online] At: https://archive.org/details/reflectionsonde00mollgoog/page/n234. (Accessed on 9 March 2019)
  2. Open College of the Arts (2016) The Materiality of Images: Rachel Smith lecture. [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQzobcFrY9Y (Accessed on 9 March 2019)
  3. Batchen, Geoffrey (1997) Burning with Desire: the Conception of Photography. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  4. Woodward, H. (2019) Photography and New Materiality. [online] At: https://hollyocadic.wordpress.com/2019/03/06/photography-and-new-materiality/
  5. Sassoon, J., (2004). Photographic materiality in the age of digital reproduction. In: Photographs objects histories: On the materiality of images, pp.186-202.
  6. Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang
  7. Fontcuberta, Joan (2014) Pandora’s Camera. Mackbooks.
  8. Derrida, J. (1983) ‘Letter to a Japanese Friend’ In: Wood, D. & Bernasconi, R. (eds.) Derrida and Différance. Warwick: Parousia Press 1985, p. 1-5. [online] At: https://grattoncourses.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/letter_to_a_japanese.pdf (Accessed on 9 March 2019)
  9. Woodward, H. (2019) What Happens when One Rephotographs an object? [online] At: https://hollyocadic.wordpress.com/2019/03/06/what-happens-when-one-rephotographs-an-object/
  10. Woodward, H. (2019) Assignment 2 – Contextual Background. [online] At: https://hollyocadic.wordpress.com/2019/02/07/assignment-2-contextual-background/
  11. Woodward, H. (2019) Unencoding the digital image. [online] At: https://hollyocadic.wordpress.com/2019/02/25/unencoding-the-digital-image/


Unencoding the digital image

We are all subliminally aware that the digital image is constructed from computer code, without having to understand the details of exactly what is included in the information making up the umpteen megabyte files that we save on our computers. As part of this assignment, I became interested in understanding a little more than this, in particular to pick out which elements of the file contain the actual image data, and which are associated metadata data of various forms.  This article (1) was helpful  and although I have absolutely no understanding of computer coding, using it I was able to decode the data for the 6 x 6 pixel image that is the first image of the assignment, with the help of my partner, a computer scientist. The simplest way to understand the data is to change the file format to BMP (bitmap) in the cleanest version possible, without any compression. (A reasonably understandable explanation of the BMP file elements can be found here (2) in Wikipedia). I then displayed the contents of the BMP file using a hexadecimal editor.

Here is the full BMP file for the image in hexadecimal format, converted using https://onlineimagetools.com/convert-jpg-to-bmp  (3)

bmp file for image

Fig. 1 – Hexadecimal code screenshot. (2019)

Using the information, and without going into too much detail, the three sets of columns correspond to

  1. offsets – these are dividers to enable the data to be read more easily.  In reality the code is a single long line of information without any breaks.
  2.  This is the column which shows the actual data as a series of hexadecimal values. (Hexadecimal is a way of compressing information so that it is shorter, using the numbers 0-9 and the letters A-F). In the central section, there are also a variety of 00s and FFs, which are dividers between the pixels. Each pixel information unit consists of six characters, in three groups of two, which correspond to red, green and blue, although bizarrely, back to front. Thus, the last pixel above, corresponding to the bottom right one in the image consists of 7D (red), 65 (green) and 80 (blue) in hexadecimal code.
  3. The third column is an attempt by the hexadecimal editor to turn the information in the second column into text using the ASCII coding scheme. In this example, there is no text so it makes no sense, but sometimes one can see location information, titles, etc. in this column, which have been gleaned from the hexadecimal data.

Another way of picking the image apart is to select only the pixel colour data in RGB format, which is a decimal code and therefore less compressed than BMP. I was able to do this using MATLAB, a program which is not readily available, and the results look like this.

6x6 rgb file

Fig. 2 Pixel colour code example (2019)

The first section is red, the second green and the last blue, i.e. three 6 x 6 columns. These can be thought of as layers of information about the image which correspond to the red, green and blue channels in Photoshop.  On pages 11-13 of the assignment I have printed the three colour channels for the image, and when they are laid on top of one another, they produce the full colour version. To show how it relates to the data in the Bitmap image above, the bottom right pixel in the image can be viewed as either #7D6580 in hexadecimal or 135, 131, 144 in RGB.

A third way of deconstructing the pixel values is using Base 64 code, which is what I did for the image shown in page 4 of the assignment and again on the back cover. Again, I used onlineimagetools.com to convert the BMP to Base 64, and the result looked like this.

6x6 in Base64 text

Fig. 3 Base64 code example. (2019)

In this version, the As are not relevant, while the data between each slash corresponds to the information for one pixel. The information is shown in ASCII code, and more information on Base 64 can be found here.(4) It is generally used to make files more easily printable and only uses letters and numbers, rather than the myriad of symbols which feature in ASCII.  Just to see what happened, I then converted this back into a BMP and then a JPEG, and the result was exactly the same as the original, so it works. This leads to consideration of how the data in an image can be altered with or without changing the image itself, and the arts of steganography, something I may delve into in Assignment 4.


Fig. 1 Woodward, H. (2019) Hexadecimal code screenshot. [Online Image Tools, Screenshot of generated code] At: https://onlineimagetools.com/convert-jpg-to-bmp (Accessed 01/03/2020)

Fig. 2 Woodward, H. (2019) Pixel colour code example. [MATLAB, Screenshot of generated code] Generated by request from the MATL:AB program. (Accessed 29/03/2019)

Fig. 3 Woodward, H. (2019) Base64 code example. [Online Image Tools, Screenshot of generated code] At: https://onlineimagetools.com/convert-bmp-to-base64 (Accessed 01/03/2020)


  1. Quinn, A.J. (2017) Advanced C Programming. At: https://engineering.purdue.edu/ece264/17au/hw/HW15 (Accessed 01/03/2020)
  2. Wikipedia (2020) BMP file format. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BMP_file_format (Accessed 01/03/2020)
  3. Online Image Tools (2020) jpeg to bmp convertor. At: https://onlineimagetools.com/convert-jpg-to-bmp (Accessed 01/03/2020)
  4. Wikipedia (2020) Base64. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Base64 (Accessed 01/03/2020)