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Data Visualization: Twitter Portraits by Lori Hepner

Artist Lori Hepner has devised an ingenious and mesmerizing approach to the representation of identity in the age of digital social media — in her ongoing series Status Symbols, she makes portraits of individual posts on Twitter.

As we spend more and more of our lives on computers, the evidence of our relationships are recorded in an ever-expanding sea of bits and bytes. How to represent our digitized relationships visually presents a particular challenge to photographers, but Pittsburgh-based artist Lori Hepner has devised an ingenious—and mesmerizing—approach. In her ongoing series Status Symbols, she makes portraits of individual posts on Twitter.

The devices used to make the pictures (custom built over several months by Hepner herself, and programmed with the help of collaborators) consist of a spinning strip of eight LED lights that flash different colors and patterns based on the binary code of each character in a given tweet. Each character in a tweet blinks once, and a tweet of up to 140 characters takes about 3.5 seconds to appear. Hepner then uses a medium-format film camera on a tripod to photograph the device.

While each tweet is a unique reflection of the specific data in the tweet, the resulting images are abstracted enough that the language cannot be read or inferred from the content of the image. In the same way that a traditional photographic portraits only captures someone’s likeness for a brief moment, each image from Status Symbols is just one fraction of someone’s virtual persona.

One of Hepner’s two devices is an interactive sculpture that grabs content live from Twitter, and will be in use tonight, Aug. 26, at the Houston Center for Photography’s annual fundraising party, SPIN7. Send a tweet regarding “the future of photography” during the party (8p.m. to 11p.m. CT) and include the hashtag #status and your Twitter portrait will be seen at the show. Hepner will also be selecting individual tweets to photograph later for a mini portfolio of portraits from the event. Check her site in a few weeks to see if she makes a print of your #status portrait!

Follow @lorihepner on Twitter, and see more of Hepner’s work and purchase prints directly on her web site. Hepner’s work is currently on display at the Houston Center for Photography. You can read more about her process from the Brooklyn Museum and watch a video of her discussing the early work at TEDx Leadership Pittsburgh. Status Symbols will be part of the forthcoming 14th International Photography Festival in Lishui, China, from Nov. 5-9, 2011. Hepner is also currently an Assistant Professor of Integrative Arts at Penn State Greater Allegheny.

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