With the original dancing baby now 17 years old, have animated gifs come of age? BBC Culture reveals the first pieces from a new Saatchi Gallery competition.

They’ve moved from objects of mindless distraction to political discussions about the crisis in Syria: animated gifs have come a long way from the original dancing baby, which first went viral in 1996.

Short for Graphics Interchange Format, the gif has taken off in recent years – a new award show launched in January 2014, and now London’s Saatchi Gallery has created a prize for the best animated loops.

Labelling it “motion photography”, the prize will be judged by a panel including film director Baz Luhrmann and photographer Cindy Sherman, proving that animated gifs (like An Underwater Spell by Simon McCheung, main image) are increasingly being considered as a serious artform. “Almost any medium can gain currency as serious art because contemporary art practice is so diverse,” says Nigel Hurst, CEO of the Saatchi Gallery. “However motion photographs or gifs haven’t been used by artists much because until now it required special tools or know-how to make them.”

Heather Buckley

With tools like Vine, Twitter’s mobile app that allows users to create and post short looping video clips, animated gifs are becoming more mainstream – and being embraced by a range of artists. Online database Giphy features photographers, animators, curators and graphic designers; there is a typefoundry creating animated typefaces, and an illustrator bringing his 3D work to life.

Some argue that focusing on gifs is reductive. “I think it’s kind of odd to define [the art form] around the file format when there’s such a diversity of work that’s being made, and diversity of process that leads up to it,” gallery owner Theo Downes-Le Guin told OPB News.

Marius Krivicius

Yet showcasing loops like this field (pictured top) by UK photographer Heather Buckley – who won RHS Photographer of the Year in January – and the eerie moonlit scene (pictured above) by Lithuanian filmmaker Marius Krivičius could inspire further exploration of the medium.

According to Hurst, the gif is changing visual art by creating a new form of moving image. “For the [Saatchi] Prize, between five and 50 stills can be uploaded to produce a motion photograph, but you could use a lot more generally. So gifs may be used to tell simple visual stories in ways that are different from still photographs or film.”

Entries for the Motion Photography Prize – which can be uploaded via Google + − close on 1 April.

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