[ Retro GIF of the Week ] Meryl Streep Stares at You

November 26th, 2012 by Benj Edwards

Meryl Streep Retro GIF - circa 1988Click to see other views of this image: [ Original Size ] [ 2X Zoom ]

Long ago, scanners were rare and expensive. Consumer digital cameras were mostly non-existent — and those that did exist were impractical to use or expensive.

At the same time, many users possessed computers with (relatively speaking) high-resolution bitmapped displays that craved content. In time, those machines gained color capability and could display dazzlingly beautiful works of digital art.

In that computing environment, which flourished roughly between 1984 to 1996, computer users treasured bitmapped graphics files like gold. They were rare and special, and images of subjects that we’d find mundane today were regularly traded and collected on BBSes around the world.

Bandwidth was low, so one could not easily hoard these images. It took effort, and many BBSes boasted their large collections of image files — with many offering a secret file area containing adult content.

Computers like the Macintosh (1984) and the Amiga (1985) set the stage for plentiful bitmapped graphics, but it was the introduction of the CompuServe Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) 25 years ago that allowed an explosion of 256-color, high-resolution images to spread across the primitive computer networks of the time.

That’s because the GIF image format drastically compressed colorful images with no quality loss. That was important in an era of 2400 and 14400 bit-per-second modems. Every bit counted. The file size reduction enabled with GIFs (verses raw bitmaps) ushered in a social imagery revolution somewhat akin to the MP3 format’s impact on music sharing in the 1990s.

Let’s Celebrate the GIF File

As color graphics hardware became standard in personal computers — especially in IBM PC compatibles — the GIF itself became a social, cultural phenomenon. People traded images containing humor, pornography, political commentary, cutting-edge 3D art, and more. For a time, GIF images became the visual currency of the personal computer era.

For the last 20 years, I have been collecting GIF images, beginning with those that were originally uploaded to my BBS in the early-mid 1990s. Over the next few months, I’d like to examine certain images in that collection in this new column: Retro GIF of the Week.

As we embark on this adventure together, keep in mind that it’s likely that not every image featured in this series originated as a GIF file. I may feature other old bitmapped computer graphics files as well, but they will all be 256 colors or less, and all of them will have originated from 1996 or earler, with weight given to older examples of the art form and, of course, to those of particular thematic or cultural interest.

Meryl Streep

With that lengthy introduction out of the way, let’s talk about this week’s GIF. It’s a 16-color image of American actress Meryl Streep based on a photo taken in 1980. I found the file on a BBS I visited long ago.

I did some digging, and thanks to the wonderful archive at Jason Scott’s cd.textfiles.com, I found an earlier 2-color version of the image that was created on a Macintosh. It’s likely that someone scanned the original 1980 photo and retouched it to skillful effect using MacPaint or some other program.

Later (around 1987), someone cropped the image to 640 x 350 EGA format and colorized it with the 16-color EGA color palette. This kind of social construction and manipulation of images was quite common in the 1980s and 1990s when authorship of a particular image, once it spread, was hard to pin down or prove. The resulting traded and edited image, in effect, belonged to the community at that point — unless, of course, the artist signed his or her initials.

In the columns ahead, you’ll likely see more celebrity images, as they were some of the most popular images traded on BBSes during the height of the classical GIF era. I may not go this in-depth in investigating the origins of future GIF files, but in this case, its history was fascinating to track down — as far as I could take it.

The ultimate origins of this image (who scanned it, who colorized it) remain a mystery, and they will likely always be so. That’s why I will always remind you that I don’t offer the final word on the provenance of any GIF I will feature. It may be up to you, in some cases, to help fill in the story if you know part of the image’s history (such as its origins in a particular graphical demo) that I haven’t mentioned.

So here we go. I hope you enjoy it.

Retro GIF of the Week Fact Box
Source File Name: MERYL.GIF
Source File Date: December 22, 1987
Source File Format: GIF – 87a (interlaced)
Dimensions: 640 x 350 pixels (EGA)
Color Depth: 4-bit (16 color)
Origin Platform: Likely IBM PC
Derived From: MERYL.MAC (4/25/1987) [ original file ]
Photo by unknown photographer (1980) [ comparison ]
Creation Date: circa 1987
Artist: Unknown
If you know more about the origin of this image, please leave a comment.

5 Responses to “[ Retro GIF of the Week ] Meryl Streep Stares at You”

  1. VileR Says:

    Fantastic entry — some excellent e-detective work on this particular image too! Have to say that this aspect of online culture is often neglected; haven’t much thought about it in this light myself, anyway. Which is kind of strange, since GIF still rules the roost in 2012 (mostly in animated form, with numerous websites devoted solely to hosting humorous GIFs that get reposted everywhere).

    I definitely remember browsing BBS lists to pick my next painfully slow 2400 bps download…. the GIF sections had these vague descriptions, and you could choose to spend your next 10 minutes downloading either “Vase with Beautiful Flowers” or “Tawny Kitaen nude :-)”.

  2. Benj Edwards Says:

    Thanks, VileR. I’m glad you like it. I’m excited to share more neat old GIFs in the future.

    I remember those days of browsing BBS file sections well. As an aside, the first time my brother showed me a BBS, he was trying to decide which shareware game to choose to download. I was completely amazed — “You can download any of those games FOR FREE?”

    On a 2400 baud modem, I remember that any file over 100 KB took “forever” to download (back of the envelope math says it would be almost 6 minutes at optimum speed).

  3. LongFellow Says:

    I remember pulling that very same image from The Bijou BBS down in Florida. The person who posted it was another BBS sysop who “claimed” to be the author of the image.

    It was never proven he was the author as he also claimed to have authored a number of music files in .midi form which was not true as the authors of those had encoded their names in the files. I will run the Commodore later and see if I still have that file as I do have those old image discs saved on home made double sided floppies. Yeah I had my own disc notcher.

  4. Chris Says:

    What great memories! I posted a bunch of the images I collected on my Flickr account to help educate people what “high quality” images where before HD monitors and multi-megabit download speeds existed.


  5. s1500 Says:

    I remember viewing GIFs with Compuserve’s CShow.

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