Begin with an old distinction: on the one hand, photographic images, which reflect the existence of real things in the real world. On the other hand, drawings, paintings, renderings, and other representations which may signify things, but do not testify to their reality. Digital camera files belong to the first group (reports on the real), while computer-rendered images belong to the second (representations).

In recent posts about images of digital text (and text in digital images), I’ve been picking away at that distinction by exploring special cases. For one example, computers can semaphore with past light using digitazed photographs of ‘real’ words and letters. For another example, if we imagine the scene when a digital image was rendered, our belief grants the rendered image status as past light. What does believing in the past status of a digital image entail?

I believe in the screen capture.

The screen capture is a snapshot of whatever pixel values appear on the screen. This recording is performed internally by the computer, saving values from the video buffer directly to a file. Screen capture is both a general technique of buffer interception and a specific genre of image marked by its extraction from the scene of the desktop. While the results might include rendered, photographic, or video components, the constituative feature of the genre is the presence of graphical user interface elements such as window frames, menus, toolbars, mouse pointers, etc., which mark the screen capture as being of the “screen” (the desktop manager) rather than as the discrete output of a specific program.

The screen capture genre is another example of a crossover from real, “that-has-been” photograph into the realm of the “born-digital” computer rendered image. Just as most photographs represent recognizable objects and scenes that correspond to our experienced real world of being, action, and interaction, most screen captures represent recognizable interfaces: the locations and situations of clicking, scrolling, and typing which have an experiential reality that can also be witnessed and attested to.

In the screen capture, with its icons, or menus, or even command line, we see a coherent space, a place of happening and history, and a system of virtual light reports on what was. Interestingly, this is true even though if the light remains purely an internal representation. A photograph which requires that light circulate - it cannot record within a perfectly dark room. However, for the computer graphics card, the circulation of light is entirely secondary to its internal representations. A ‘headless’ computer (with no monitor attached) can record a screen capture, and when we view it later the veracity of the image in attesting to a witnessed past still impresses us, even though no original light ever reached a monitor before our later viewing.

Thus, in the example above, the screen capture pictured above contains an image of a Pan Am Stewardess from the film 2001 - but, more importantly, it testifies that this Newton was running on Feb 14, 2005 at 6:20 PM, that the battery was at 100%, that there was a minimized application, etc.

The screen capture is a tabula lucida - a place of light-writing, like the photo-graph, with an automatic (or procedural) power that can shift our perception of it from semiotic association into reality.

1 Response to “Screen as Tabula Lucida”

  1. 1 Jeremy Douglass

    In Kathleen Craig’s Flickr Cracks Down on Screenshots, we encounter an interesting version of this conflict. For virtual world participants, happenings onscreen are events worthy of capture - Second Life is worthy of reportage, photo- and otherwise. Yet most non-participants expect images that testify to their own relm of engagement - traditional photography of the ‘real world.’

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