A screenshot, screen capture, or screen grab, is a digital image made from within and of a digital interface, capturing the current operational screen of the device. In present day computers and mobile devices, this image capture is done without the use of a camera or lens; however, this was not always the case as the need for screen photography has existed since the illuminated screen itself.
“In principle, it is the reason for the invention of photography: the retention of the image on the matt screen of the portable camera obscura was one of the more important drivers of its development. Screen-image photography is the photo-technological capturing of illuminated screens (screen images) using a photographic apparatus.”
– Winfried Gerling, Photography in the Digital
Before the screenshot, many kinds of cameras were used to capture images appearing on a screen. As early as the 1930s, MMR (mass miniature radiography) was developed as a cheap alternative to full sized x-ray film where fleeting images from an x-ray machine were photographed using a small format camera.
Through the developmental phases of the personal computer, Polaroid images of the screen were often used as a quick reference to the programs being discussed and special cameras were also created to capture exact images of the early computer output screen.
Figure 1: Polaroids of the interface development of Lisa at Apple (ca. 1979), by Bill Atkinson. Creative Commons License.
Source; date accessed: 27.Mar.2020
Figure 2: Diagram of layout for chest fluorography.Image from public domain – open access journal.
Source: Mass Radiography of the Chest, Article from British Journal of Radiography; date accessed: 27.Mar.2020
Figure 3: Figure 3: Polaroid CU-5 advertisement, ca. 1970. Image from public domain – circulated on Tumblr
Source; date accessed: 27.Mar.2020
Even so, this practice of screen photography is rarely considered within the purview of photographic practice and is often only discussed as a technical image. However, it is interesting to insert this commonplace ‘photography’ in our discussions of digital image making and circulation, to see what accounts they hold of what Jan Distelmeyer calls the ‘global computerization of living conditions.‘ This idea of ‘global computerization’ points to the manifestation of human computer interfaces in most spheres of human activity, built to ‘represent’ complex procedural activities at the root of computation.
The embedding of the screen capture process within interfaces was preceded by a more important development in digital computers – the development of the graphical user interface (GUI). The GUI is the complex system of visual representation built to allow computer users to communicate with the hardware processes of the machine in efficient ways. While questions of the interface are largely directed at the GUI today, early computer interfaces were textual in nature and required specialized knowledge to read, write and communicate with the computer. From the 1960s onwards, the interface has gradually progressed into an intuitive visual environment. As interfaces transformed into ‘image’ space through its operational screens of overlapping windows and cursor based navigation, the screen capture mechanism soon followed to document specific constellations of this dynamic screen space.
Today, the screenshot is ubiquitous – they are made by practically everyone who uses smart-phones and personal computers and are circulated in a variety of contexts. Screenshots capture the multiple frames of the interface along with the content (images, text, programs) framed by these elements. They provide a view into the landscape of the computer and are as such, removed from any pictorial ideas of perspective, light or shadow. As such, the only control provided by the screenshot mechanism is that of an arbitrary cut in the frame. As a photographic practice, this presents a significant break from the ‘pictorial’ mode of traditional photography, painting and even cinema that through representation, strives to create an illusory reality that mimics the ‘real world.’ In his essay titled The Paradoxes of Digital Photography, Lev Manovich says that our collective fascination with ‘photorealism’ is based on an inherent equation of the ‘real’ and the ‘photographic,’ where the two are conflated in our visual world. Screenshot photography then breaks with these methods of representation, reducing photography to its bare bones – the capturing of a moment in time on a surface. However, much like traditional photography, screenshots are also ‘ghosts’ of the real moment they attempt to capture, as they remove the interface from its essentially operational nature. The screenshot is often haunted with ghost buttons, transfixed cursors and windows caught mid motion.
While the photographic potential of the screenshot has been explored by many artists as well as video game photographers, I was often stirred to attention and amusement at the conceptual possibilities of this medium being explored by anonymous photographers and circulated freely on the internet. These findings also brought forth for me – the essentially social nature of the screenshot – an image recorded to share an internal state of the interface while actively participating in it.
Figure 4: Image of screenshot sold on ebay
Source: Washington Post article. Creative Commons License; date accessed: 27.Mar.2020
Figure 5: Screenshot of the ebay auction. Creative Commons License
Source: Washington Post article; date accessed: 27.Mar.2020
In August 2014, this image made the rounds on many news websites, including Artnews and Dazed.com for being sold as ‘artwork by anonymous.’ The framed print of a screenshot that allegedly sold for 90,000 US Dollars on ebay.com contained the text “Art used to be something to cherish. Now literally anything could be art. This post is art.” The news articles also question the validity of this auction and some claim that this was actually a set up between two members of the 4chan community. Later, a screenshot of the ebay auction of the screenshot was also put up by an anonymous user for auction on ebay, generating much speculation and conversation about the nature of contemporary art on the internet. The news story seems to have died soon after and nothing was revealed about the identities of the auctioneers and buyers, leaving one to speculate on whether this was an artistic intervention.
One might compare this incident to Richard Prince’s infamous exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York in 2014, where he showed largescale prints of screenshots of Instagram posts by various photographers and celebrities. This was also a very controversial show, as multiple photographers accused him of plagiarism as the works sold for exorbitant amounts of money.
This is a screenshot uploaded to Facebook by Mike Webb, a U.S. Congressional Candidate during his campaign in 2016. While he recounted an anecdote about a phone call from Curzon Staffing in Washington D.C. in the text accompanying the image, the screenshot quickly became viral for the peripheral information it revealed. On the basis of the title text from two other tabs open on his browser window, the candidate was accused of consuming pornographic content. The screenshot got shared along social media channels, equally chastising the candidate and ridiculing his lack of digital literacy. However, in a later post attempting to explain the screenshot, Mike Webb pointed out that the screenshot had led to a 25% rise in his Facebook likes (according to the Washington Post).
This incident is an example of many of the same kind – involving important public figures being implicated for their personal behavior – made possible through the creation and circulation of screenshot images. Screenshots of personal conversations and emails between important people have often been used in similar ways, even sometimes in court and legal disputes. In these situations, the screenshot functions as photographic evidence, while being subject to the same questions of authenticity and validity that apply on traditional photographic evidence.
Discussing the literary technique of ‘Virtual Witnessing,’ Steven Shapin says that “The technology of virtual witnessing involves the production in a reader’s mind of such an image of an experimental scene as obviates the necessity for either its direct witness or its replication.”
Figure 7: Screenshot of Instagram account – 20.20.mm.xx
Made with permission of author Ieva Saudargaitė
20.19.2019 is an anonymous Instagram handle run by artist Ieva Saudergaite that posts a screenshot taken at 20:19 hours every day. It is a project spanning multiple years using the same basic principle where she uploads a screenshot of her mobile phone taken at a time corresponding to the year. While remaining anonymous, the account does situate itself in the context of digital art and post photography by using hashtags like #postdigitalart and #screenisthenewlens. In an informal interview, the artist behind the account reflected on some of her motivations and starting points for this project. Starting from a curiosity about the medium of the screenshot, the project eventually developed into a kind of obsessive documentary series, “a sort of diary for my smartphone(s).”
I caught myself taking a lot of screenshots in my daily life – to save a fleeting image, to make a note, to share something with someone. Which were the same reasons I used to take photographs when I first started to use a digital camera… When taking screenshots, I would sometimes make a mistake of pressing too soon and would catch odd moments in between interfaces or digital operations that would normally escape the naked eye, moments we were not meant to perceive as users. I found that glitch relatable – suddenly this “perfect” “designed” world wasn’t so streamlined.
Figure 8: Screenshot from Tumblr, found on multiple social media websites. Image in public domain – circulated on Tumblr and other social media websites.
Source; date accessed: 27.Mar.2020
This is a screenshot taken from a popular Tumblr account – the image is representative of a category of meme / joke circulating on the internet that uses the form of the screenshot as its punchline. The joke begins by one user of the social media making an observation or absurd comment and is reposted with additions made by each subsequent user / account. This format of the screenshot meme is especially popular on text based social media platforms like Reddit and Twitter.
Figure 9: Screenshot from Reddit. Image from Public Domain – circulated on reddit.
Source; date accessed: 27.Mar.2020
The content (information) here is always textual, but the joke is delivered in the image of these stacked texts. The screenshot is taken by a final witness, who decides to conclude the joke – giving birth to the meme while also ending the thread. Screenshots may be taken at various points of progress in a thread like this, but each such image freezes a constellation of comments in a particular order, creating alternate narratives from the same source. These are images of conversations, representing multiple subjectivities through abstract cues like the account handles and usernames as well as the networked environments where these conversations take place. In the act of screen capture, the form and interface of the social media platform is documented, reproduced multiple times through its circulation and imprinted onto the constantly shifting culture and collective memory of the internet.
Figure 10 : Wayback Machine. Creative Commons License.
Source; date accessed: 27.Mar.2020
The practice of screen-capture is an archival impulse, solidifying and recording of the content and culture of the screen. Archives of the internet like Wayback Machine, archive.is and screenshots.com often take screenshots of websites through their web-crawlers. These form part of the publicly accessible archives that attempt to preserve and remember what websites, and the internet at large, have looked like through the years. These screen images also become a record of content that might have subsequently been removed from the internet.
Much like camera-based photography, these images work to document and capture the fleeting ephemera of life on the interface. Flattening an interactive, dynamic space onto a photographic plane, the screenshot also cuts across the functional illusions constructed by interface design. Interface design relies heavily on the construction of a seamless metaphorical representation of complex algorithmic processes – from assigning ‘addresses’ to data, storing them in logical objects called ‘folders and files’ to the idea of the computer as a holistic ‘desktop’ machine. As such the interface works to make itself invisible, to remove an awareness of its ‘design’ from the users’ experience of it – this illusory process is arrested by the screen image, and its transparent forms are turned solid.
“User illusion” was a main principle of interface designers since XEROX PARC, since the first days of the profession. They were fully aware about creating illusions, of paper, of folders, of windows. UX creates an illusion of unmediated natural space.
– Olia Lialina 
Lev Manovich uses the term “screen” for any “flat rectangular surface, existing in the space of our body and acting as a window into another space.” He argues that the essential modality propagated by this ‘screen,’ ranging from renaissance paintings to photography, cinema and the computer screen, is that of an immobilized body captured by increasingly realistic images. Expanding on the idea, Oliver Grau, argues that earlier illusionary spaces have a frame or a marked difference between the representation – the illusionary space – and the ‘real’ space. As our contemporary screens continue to erase their ‘frames’ and begin to blend seamlessly into ‘real life,’ the screenshot presents a unique opportunity of re-framing the increasingly immersive interface from within expanding confines. The screenshot is also a dispersed image, most often created to be shared, and in doing so – transgresses the solitary design of the interface. It presents to its viewers, the insides of someone else’s subjective machine, and its many similarities and differences with their own.
 Distelmeyer, Jan. “Drawing Connections – How Interfaces Matter.” Interface Critique Journal, vol. 1, 2018, interfacecritique.net/.
 Gorton, Thomas. “4chan Screenshot Sells On Ebay for $90,900.” Dazed Digital, 04.Aug.2014.
 4chan is an anonymous English-language imageboard website. 4chan has been described as a hub of Internet subculture. 4chan has often been the subject of media attention as a source of numerous controversies, including the coordination of pranks, harassment, attacks against other websites and Internet users and the posting of illegal content, threats of violence, misogyny and racism.
 Lialina, Olia. “Rich User Experience: Ux and the Desktopization of War.” Interface Critique Journal, vol. 1, 2018, interfacecritique.net
Copyright © 2021, PhotoSouthAsia. All Rights Reserved.
Anisha Baid was invited to write this essay for PhotoSouthAsia by our Guest Editor, Chinar Shah. We encourage you to begin with Shah's introduction, Question of Photography, 2020, and to also read Shah's other invited essayists:
Aileen Blaney: Macro Your Shot
Nihaal Faizal: Luminous Enhancements
Copyright © Anisha Baid
Anisha Baid is an artist and writer based in Bangalore, India. Her practice and research involve an investigation of pervasive technologies through an examination of their design, diversity of use, and their relationship with ideas from science fiction. She works with found and archival material - often sourced from the internet to construct narratives that move between fiction and documentary. Poking at the flat-scapes of the computer screen, her work tries to decode computer labor through the interface - a technological tool that has converted most spaces of work into image space. Her work can be found on her website.