Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Myth of the Post-Processing Bias

I was going to merely add a comment to Terry’s earlier message, but I decided instead to write a more detailed response. Terry still feels that people are biased against post-processed fractals. Well, Terry is entitled to his opinion, and this is a blog, a venue for airing opinions, so now I’m going to air mine.

Who cares what Ken Keller thinks? I mean, okay, he’s got his definition of fractal art. It’s his opinion. But look at the date on the referenced piece: December 2003. Hmmm. I think this is old news. Ken references Charles Vassallo’s “Mandelbrot fractals and pretty girls” page; although there’s no date on that page specifically, the text suggests it’s from 1998. Even older news. And Terry trots out some suggestions from the 1999 Fractal Art Contest. 1999. Come on, Terry. Quit pulling the corpse out of the ground. Let it rest in peace.

What you’re seeing is not bias against post-processing. You’re seeing the difference between a technical and practical definition of fractal art. So let me back up for a second, and talk about fractal art and digital art and where post-processing fits in with all of that.

Terry is completely on the mark that all fractal images are “post-processed” in some fashion. We color them, or we layer them. Even if we choose “not” to color them, we are in fact making a choice (for black and white) because those reflect a property of the mathematics. Everything we do in creating fractal imagery is interpretation, a visualization of massive amounts of numbers, distilled into a form that we can make sense of quickly. So to say some algorithms for doing this are acceptable while others are not is rather pointless. To even suggest that some software can be used while other software cannot is also pointless; I can code almost anything in Ultra Fractal, so the choice not to use Photoshop is really just a personal preference and not one dictated by the art. I have my reasons for the preference, but they have little to do with artistic choices.

(Sidebar: people have written flame generators, L-systems, raytracers, font renderers, image importers, convolution filters, heightfield generators and more for Ultra Fractal. Some of these are easy, and some are hard. I have personally written formulas to do layered images in FractInt; the only limitation I encountered there was an arbitrary cap on the complexity of formula allowed, a limitation that can easily be removed, so FractInt too can do this stuff if you're persistent enough. Different tools are better for different things, but in reality choosing a “fractal” tool imposes very few limitations. There is no real difference between doing something entirely in UF and doing the same thing with Fractal Explorer + Photoshop, or any other combination that you like.)

So really, who gets to decide what is and is not fractal art? Ken Keller’s got his definition. Kerry Mitchell has his. We will each have our own definition, and there's no guarantee that they will be similar.

We can likely agree that fractal art is included within the larger category of digital art. After all, fractal art would not exist in its current form without the aid of computers to do the tedious mathematical grunt work. And since the product is a digital image, this makes sense. But what is the difference between fractal art (specific) and digital art (general)? What makes a piece of art fractal? To answer this question I will consider another, easily-recognizable type of digital art: 3D art.

3D art (for lack of a better label) is easily found on sites like Renderosity or 3D Commune. But there’s no rigid definition for it. There are no specific software packages that are required, even though POV-Ray, Poser, Bryce, Terragen, and so forth are popular choices. There is no specific subject matter that is required, although landscapes, spaceships, and… umm… fantasy women seem to be popular themes. You might even try for a more formal definition: 3D art is art where mathematical models of objects and light are used to simulate what an eye might see, with varying levels of realism… but if you used such a definition, you are judging based on the precise details of how an image is created, and that is information you may not have. If you do have it, it may be only because the artist gave it to you.

But this is like having to ask whether a particular painting is oil or acrylic or watercolor. Does it matter? Is Bert Monroy a photographer or a painter? He’s a painter, but if you only saw his work, without any explanation, I think I’d forgive you for assuming he was a photographer. Similarly, if you saw Terry’s work without description, I think I’d forgive you for assuming he’s a digital artist (general) rather than a fractal artist (specific) because a lot of what he creates doesn't seem to have the same characteristics as a lot of other fractal art. That’s not right or wrong, that’s Terry’s style. If Terry hadn’t told you he’s a fractal artist, you might not know. And you probably wouldn’t care. What matters is whether you like his art, or not.

So what does it mean to be a fractal artist? The definition of using a particular piece of software is clearly out; not only is our fractal software now powerful enough to do almost anything, but new fractal artists often pop up with custom software that they never share. We can use a technical definition: art created based on images that are the result of iterative formulas processed through visualization algorithms. Whew, what a load of gobbledegook. That would include pretty much any form of processing, even processing that made the “original” shape unrecognizable. (And I quote “original” because there is no original image without some form of interpretive algorithm, therefore all such algorithms are fair game.)

Of course, just because an image is fractal art does not mean it has a high fractal content. And this has little to do with the visualization algorithms selected, and far more to do with the aesthetic judgments of the artist. I have created images with very little fractal content. Are they fractal art? Sure! Would anyone familiar with “fractal art” recognize them as such? Probably not!

Here is the disconnect, then: a formal definition of fractal art is all about the process used to create the image and the underlying mechanisms. A perceptual definition—the kind of working definition most people will use—is based on whether the image “looks” fractal to them. The gap between these two is where the argument lies. There is plenty of fractal art that doesn’t look fractal. It tends to get labeled as more generic “digital art.” For now, let's call it “arguably fractal art.”

Most of the time, this is an unimportant difference. But some of the cases Terry cites—contests being a prime example—would cause arguably fractal art to be rejected. I can’t speak for anyone else’s contest, since I don’t run them, but I can address the 1999 text Terry quoted and the 2006 and 2007 contests. For 1999, voting was open to the public; the suggestion was just that—a suggestion—that images not obviously fractal might not appeal to those primarily interested in a fractal art contest. Similarly in 2006 and 2007, we are selecting artwork for a fractal art exhibition. Artwork that appears less fractal is at a bit of a disadvantage, because we are specifically trying to show artwork with more obvious fractal characteristics. Disadvantage does not mean impossible, however, and for 2006 we in fact selected a barely-fractal image. Iñigo produced this image with popcorn-like formulas, so from a technical standpoint it definitely belongs, but visually it lacks the fractal characteristics of the other winning selections.

So while technically, artwork may be fractal in nature, practically speaking others might not label it as such if you don’t tell them. It’s all about knowing the audience you’re marketing your work to. If your customer is looking for a washing machine, you don’t sell them oranges. You don’t even sell them a microwave. You sell them a washing machine. Any “community” site has an audience they are trying to attract. A calendar publisher has an audience they’re trying to entice. An exhibition organizer has a goal in mind for their exhibition. If those goals do not include technically-fractal-but-not-visually-fractal imagery, it’s not necessarily because they hate post-processing (because that’s a distinction that is meaningless). It’s far more likely that it’s because they’re using a visual, practical definition of fractal art.

Some of you may assume that I’m picking on Terry here. I’m not; I recognize that every artist has to have their own style. I’m just trying to show that there’s a practical side to this that explains the perceived “bias.” It’s 2007, not 1999. Fractal art is still undergoing rapid change. By 2015 we will laugh at how crude and unsophisticated our images from today are. It’s hard for me to look at my old artwork and not cringe at how raw it is. But all of these voices saying “you must do this or that…” ignore them. Follow your own muse.


Blogger Dzeni said...

I really enjoyed this post. It was well thought out and echoed many of my thoughts on the topic. I wish I was as eloquent / clear.

6/29/2007 12:38 AM

Blogger Vicky Drake said...

I avoid making images that are obviously fractal, because I'm only interested in doing something new every time. With endless possibilities, I can't imagine being limited that way. So much for my chances in the contest! But most people have never heard of fractal art, and will define it only by what they see. The audience that I'm marketing my pictures to has only the dimmest idea of how they're made. The typical buyer says something like "I don't know what it is but I like it."

I've noticed the extreme attitudes regarding "pure" fractals and those that are layered and/or post-processed. As you say, anything done in Photoshop can be done in UF. Maybe it's a guy thing. ("My image has only one layer!" "Mine has 100 layers!")

Ignore what other people think and follow your muse. That's great.

6/30/2007 3:59 PM

Blogger Rykk said...

As one whose style definitely involves a multitude (and then some - lol) of disparate fractal layers and masks made from them, I have to agree that the idea of "post-processing" is a myth. For some, I reckon that the math is the thing and the "pure" representation of that math is what they are after. I'm more interested in the "art using fractals" aspect. Were it not for the advent of UF and its layering capabilities, I venture to posit that it would have all been done by now and there would be nothing left in the way of types or shapes of fractals other than endlessly iterative different colorings of the same old shapes and there would be no need to mess with them anymore. Keith Mackay stressed in a post somewhere saying something like, "is all we do is color the spirals UF drew for us?"(sic)

The recent call for works for the Fractal Universe calendar really got me thinking about that. I avoided spirals back in the Fractint/Winfract days because they were so prevalent - and also somewhat because I couldn't come up with numbers that made them. lol So I sat for a goodly amount of time dorking with gradients and merge modes, pretty much "pokin' and hopin'" to get pleasing colors for the shape that I have to admit UF made and not I. All I did was, as Keith said, "color the spiral that UF made". So, ok, maybe I WAS the one who moved the cursor around in the Explore mode and "selected" the spiral that "happened" as I did so. But still, the finer points of that spiral were ones that UF made and I just chose where to stop exploring but it wasn't as if I began by saying, "I'll make a spiral with and an ovoid this". I messed around in Explore and with ucl functions until something "cool" popped up and then dorked around with the gradient and merges. I did make choices by masking certain colors or textures off of or onto specific shapes/areas. Same goes for applying mappings like fbm Glass, Turbulence or Perin Noise 3D. One doesn't choose exactly where a swirl or ripple appears. UF does and we just play with settings until they match our sense of "rightness".

What I'm getting at is that, if one doesn't do the things that some call "post-processing" to a goodly extent, then fractals will just be fractals and not "art with fractals" and just about everything appealing has already been done at least thrice...

I prefer to make pieces with "context" and an overall sense of "composition" to them - I call it "compositional multilayering". Works that have as many choices made by me and not by a fractal parsing program as possible. Many are not overtly "fractal" and some resemble more "traditional" artforms but that is just me crossing the "boundaries", trying to use all of the tools at hand, and not adhering to the "limitations" imposed upon the artform. Mostly because I never knew they existed until now and have only a "feeling" for the algorithms and no real grasp of the nuts and bolts of the math involved. Just a love for the wildly abstract and surreal vibe of fractal art and colors. I agree with Vicky about how an overwhelming majority of viewers have no idea what a fractal is and just know what they like and if something speaks to them. For this reason - and maybe reasons rooted in my basic id - I tend to try to supply some small recognizable point of reference or "context" for the viewer to wrap their head around like an orb, a sun or clouds and stars even to steady them amid the surrounding chaos.


7/01/2007 2:48 PM


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