Pixel artist Steven Silberg wins The Washington Post's Real Art D.C. contest

Jessica Dawson, art critic for The Washington Post visits the studio of pixel-based artist Steven Silberg, winner of the Post's local artist competition.
By Jessica Dawson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Exactly what happens inside your iPhone that transforms pixels into pictures? If you're like most of us, you take for granted the photographic technology living in your pocket or purse.

That's the kind of apathy Steven Silberg aims to end.

Silberg just won the Post's six-month-long Real Art D.C. competition, a contest that yielded 4,000-plus user-uploaded images by area artists. Silberg beat out nine other finalists for the title of best new talent in the region. The Catonsville, Md.-based Silberg, 35, emerged at the top after a tight race: He captured 38 percent of the more than 17,000 votes and won by fewer than 200. In second place was Stephanie Booth, whose needlepoint works transformed bad experiences into art -- foremost among them, her perennial position as bridesmaid.

Silberg's interactive artwork speaks to how we live today. He engages technology that's become ubiquitous in our lives -- technology that we're loath to understand but really should.

"I think that my works fits into this weird subsection of the art world that's somewhat a reaction to digital work," Silberg says. "It's post-digital. People are seeming to reembrace the glitch, the human touch -- there's a break from the pure cleanliness of digital. A lot of people are rejecting the detachment of it."

Using a method he calls "pixel lapse photography," Silberg invites us to experience the fragility of digital information circulating online and living in our hard drives. The artist deconstructs the 21st century's most common visual currency, the digital image, by breaking pictures down to their tiniest element: the pixel.

To look at Silberg's art is to interact with it. A subject takes a seat at a console, presses a button to start, and Silberg's camera begins assembling a curious portrait that's not really a portrait at all.

For the next few minutes, the computer's webcam builds a picture . . . one pixel at a time. The image grows from the top left and moves horizontally until it hits the far right edge of the screen. From there, it begins again one line down, the image growing steadily from top to bottom, left to right. The picture fabricates itself in front of our eyes.

Here's the rub: As each pixel registers on-screen, it registers only what's in front of the camera at that exact moment. If you move, even a little -- and who doesn't? -- you'll blur your picture. If you intentionally move, which many subjects do, the final product can have a dizzying, almost kaleidoscopic look. (Download the pixel lapse program for home use and see all of Silberg's pictures at

"My work has that interactivity, that bit of play" Silberg says. "You get a bit of exploration."

The totally unreal, non-portraitness of Silberg's pictures is what makes his work so important right now. He's part of a movement within the art world to undermine the instantaneousness of digital photography. Silberg complicates matters by adding the element of time to a medium known for capturing a single, static instant. His long exposures recall the endless waits of 19th-century daguerreotypes.

Silberg's latest project promises to be just as exciting as pixel lapse. Called "reductive video," the process deconstructs digital video to its most basic pixel changes. As digital video runs, areas of each frame remain constant and only movement registers as a pixel change. Working with prerecorded video, Silberg exploits that fact by reducing movement to delicate white pixels dancing against a black background. The process yields haunting images that look like 21st-century updates of photographer Eadweard Muybridge's pioneering movement studies.

For Silberg, winning the Real Art D.C. competition is only the beginning of a happy week: He and fiancee Jessica Johnson will marry on Saturday.

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