Monday, June 30, 2008

Layering the Lily: Ultra Fractal 5

"See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these."

That Biblical quotation is where the expression, "gilding the lily" comes from. To "gild the lily" is to obscure the natural beauty of something by trying to enhance it. My criticism of Ultra Fractal as a fractal art tool has always centered around that issue -- that users tended to get creative by layering fractals rather than by exploring new formulas or experimenting with new rendering techniques.

Layering is a powerful digital effect. And with the many options there are for merging layers it's quite easy to create a new "hybridized" image (or mutant) very quickly.

Of course there are varying degrees of layering. Adding a layer to give a textured quality to a surface is an example of using layering as an enhancement, or in just a minor way; many rendering methods achieve similar effects. However; taking two fractal images and merging them together usually results in a major transformation of the image (that's probably why it's done).

Taking a photograph or other, non-fractal image, and merging that into the final result is most likely to have the same major transformational effect. But this makes the final mix even more complex because now it's not all "fractal" imagery.

This ability of Ultra Fractal 5 to import images is undoubtably going to be a great feature for users to play with and experiment. Add to that the increased ability to organize and apply layers, which Ultra Fractal 5 also improves upon from previous versions, and it's not hard to see the birth of a new type of artwork starting here.

But what does this mean for the label, "Made with Ultra Fractal"? Well, if done tastefully and intelligently like many of the examples that Mark Townsend has displayed using Sprite as a plugin for the previous version, Ultra Fractal 4, then little has changed and one can just assume that whatever was made exclusively in Ultra Fractal is exclusively "fractal".

But I've noticed that it's pretty rare that anyone uses layering with any intelligence or taste in Ultra Fractal. There are exceptions and I've reviewed such exceptional fractal art here before. In fact, I believe that these exceptional works of art made in Ultra Fractal have occurred because the artists deliberately tried to avoid the tempting "fractal pancake" strategy and instead exploited the powers of the fractal formula and its inner mathematical machinery and only used the layering capabilities to bring out more of the "fractalish-ness" of the image.

If the Ultra Fractal 5 image importing feature is used by most people as I suspect it will be, then it will become a golden crutch for those who want to make innovative images with Ultra Fractal but don't want to do so with fractals, which have more parameters than just "cut" and "paste". This might lead to some interesting photo montages with fractal "highlights", but at the same time it could lead to a stampede of unicorns and an explosion of flowers leaving the fractal elements (if any) more hidden than a digital watermark.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Image of the Week: Paul Decelle Redux -- or, I Bought Ultra Fractal 5 and All I Got Was This Stupid Paint Program

Moment in Blue by Paul DeCelle

Moment in Blue by Paul DeCelle

Right now I'm having deja vu and amnesia at the same time.
--Steven Wright

Regular OT readers, at least those who haven't burned out their memory circuits with illegal substances or labored in their studio garrets to produce ten spirals to submit to this year's suddenly slimmed-down Fractal Universe Calendar, might recall that I already reviewed this image about a month ago. And it's true. I did. And, basically, I stand by what I said then. But, as with social-political-moral issues, there are also two sides to every review. There is a flip side -- a shadow side -- a dark side of the force, if you will.

Last month, I observed that DeCelle opened up fractal art to "a new way of seeing" and expressed hope that he would keep "his mysterious secret secret." Well, it seems his secret has been revealed -- and what it opens up could well be a Pandora's Box for the fractal community

The "secret" is likely found in the latest release of Ultra Fractal 5 and its new image import feature -- the function of which is described as follows:

Import PNG, JPEG or BMP images in your fractals with the new image import feature. Simply select a coloring algorithm that contains an image parameter, and you can select any image on your computer to use.

The coloring algorithm determines how the information from the image is used. For example, the standard Image coloring algorithm just displays the entire image in the fractal window.

So, I'm guessing that DeCelle was beta-testing the latest UF iteration, and this added feature is his "secret" ready for digestion by the Fractalbooking masses. No groundbreaking, individual, idiosyncratic formula wizardry was involved. It's just a new twist on the layering functions of UF -- but one that will have profound repercussions for fractal art.

Apparently, users now have the capability in UF5 to import digital images (say, photos) and incorporate them as separate layers. Consequently, it will henceforth be impossible to discern how many layers of a UF image are fractals and how many are photos. So, in the future, when you look at a UF image like this

I'm a fractal -- sort of -- although in the future you'll have to always take my word on that.

Aparen by Janet Parke

you'll never know exactly how the image was made. Are all of the layers fractals? Or are some layers photographs of rusted out car bodies? And does it make a difference?

Maybe not -- if one believes that fractal art can embrace radical post-processing. But many UF users have long clung to the fictitious illusion that using UF means they are somehow making "purer" fractals because no post-processing is involved. A laughable remark like this could often be seen on UF images posted to art communities like Renderosity: 100 layers. No post-processing. Sure. As if anything "pure" remained after that sucker had been atom-smashed into a hundred fractal pancakes. But, now, with the introduction of adding layers of photos, can anyone still claim that using UF involves no post-processing? A better question might be whether the resulting images are fractal art at all -- or, instead, fall somewhere in the category of mixed-media digital art. The mods overlording fractal galleries at hang-outs like Renderosity and deviantART should immediately begin to wrestle with such questions and determine where UF5 "fractal art" should be properly placed.

I think the implications of this development are staggering, and I suspect both Tim and I will have more to say about this bring-anything-in feature in the days ahead, but here's an observation right off the top of my head.

Ultra Fractal has now become just another paint program -- or, more precisely, a rather expensive Photoshop filter.

Isn't that obvious? DeCelle imported a digital image of Lars-Gunner Nordström's Moment in Blue and put it through some layer paces -- sort of like running filter rinses over it in a fractal car wash. Is this a complex process -- and do you really need to purchase UF5 to get comparable results? Let's see.

Here is a digital image of Nordström's original:

Moment in Blue by Lars-Gunner Nordstrom

Moment in Blue by Lars-Gunner Nordström

Here's what I did. I saved the image above on my hard drive. I opened and loaded Photoshop. I imported the image above. Using the "Artistic" effects, I applied the "Dry Brush" filter and saved my "work." Total processing time: 47 seconds. The result:

I've been modified into fractal art.

Nordström + Dry Brush filter

I closed the image above and reloaded the original. I applied the "Watercolor" filter and saved my "work." Total processing time: 13 seconds. The result:

Who waved a magic wand and made me fractal art?

Nordström + Watercolor filter

I closed the image above and reloaded the original. Wanting a little more pizzazz, I applied the Fresco filter, and actually played with the settings for a few more seconds, then saved my "work." Total processing time: 24 seconds. The result:

Who said the magic words and made me fractal art?

Nordström + Fresco filter

And, hey, I feel your pain. You're saying: Man, I can't afford Photoshop -- or even Ultra Fractal. Yet, you'd also like to be able to make such state-of-the-tech "fractal art." No problemo. Here's what I did. I Googled "free paint programs" and found one called Artweaver. Downloaded it. Installed it. Opened it. Imported the Nordström original, applied the "Oilify" filter, and saved my "work." Total processing time: 3 minutes, 14 seconds. I could have probably shaved off almost a minute, but I skimmed two other paint programs before settling on Artweaver. The result:

Who laid their hands on me and transmogrified me into fractal art?

Nordström + Oilify filter

Now compare my results to DeCelle's image-of-the-week above. Aside from the Fresco effect, can you really tell an appreciable difference between the images -- other than some minor gradations? Would you say I was engaged in making "fractal art"? No? What if I reminded you that Photoshop filters run using algorithms? You still say no? Then, you tell me, why is DeCelle's image fractal art, and my quickie exercises above are not? Because I found DeCelle's image in the fractal gallery at Renderosity? Because DeCelle's using Ultra Fractal instead of a paint program?

No, I'm (literally) not buying it -- and none of the UF cultists' admirers' spinning that is sure to come will change the big picture. Adding photo layers to UF is about as anti-fractal as you can get. Doing so means that the basis for an image being "fractal" or not will now have to come from an assessment of the image and not purely from the software used to make it. An image made in UF5 could just as likely be a retouched photo as a traditional fractal image. In the past, it was possible to try to fob off freaky UF images as fractals by (incoherently) arguing they were made entirely in UF, but now such a claim won't mean any more than saying you made your fractal work in Photoshop using a plug-in.

Face the facts. UF5 is certainly not exclusively a fractal program, and its use will no longer guarantee that the images made in it will be routinely accepted as fractal art and not some other sort of mixed media. Damien M. Jones' image, for example, the one self-selected for the 2006 BMFAC, will be the sort of image that must be forever suspect hereafter. How will we know he didn't just add a photo layer of a pic of dead grapevines being charged with an electric current? And will this year's BMFAC (assuming there is one) have to add a no-UF5-photo-layers clause to the rules? After all, last year the administrators expressed a desire to see only "artwork that is uniquely fractal; artwork that uses fractal tools to produce less-fractal imagery is not as desirable." Does the addition of a singe photo layer automatically make an image no longer "uniquely fractal"? Moreover, is our entire movement at increased risk for some de-evolution? Unfortunately, UF5 users will likely now have to make images that look more fractal and not less fractal because viewers cannot trust UF artists not to have used some photo layers to make an image more interesting. That's progress? If you think so, you might as well skip UF5 entirely and "fractalize" your photos by purchasing the much more versatile and $10 cheaper Paint Shop Pro instead.

At least there's one good offshoot from Ultra Fractal being downgraded to the status of just another image manipulation filter. No more will I have to listen to any self-righteous proclamations from UF users about how legit their fractal art is -- and what a cheat and a hack I am because I prefer post-processing fractals using various graphic programs. Think I exaggerate? Here's Kerry Mitchell, from an OT comment thread on a post about the UF winners in the 2007 BMFAC, taking a poke at the style of art that both Tim and I produce:

All that's missing [from the 2007 BMFAC winners] are a few Moire patterns and canned filters.

And, now that I think about it, wasn't Mitchell the same guy who also argued this in another OT comment thread:

With fractals, I think it's important for every artist to channel their inner rocket scientist to some level. Not only are we using tools (and every artist needs to know their tools), but the tools are not usually ones that are commonplace (almost everyone has a sense of light or stone), so some study is needed to understand what's happening. Also, we have the chance to create our own landscapes, not "just" to photograph or paint them.

So, Kerry, now that UF has become just another "canned filter" and can be used to "just" paint photographs, do you still feel the same way?


This is just the tip of the iceberg. Can you imagine what will happen when the Fractalbookers get their hands on this tool? The kitsch floodgates will burst open. DeCelle, at least, has the good taste to work with an artist of Nordström's caliber. But I'm betting the Fractalbook throngs will not be so discriminating. Expect a tsunami of "fractalized" photos of pets, kids, online friends, self-portraits, summer vacation shots, and birds-bees-bunnies romping in back yards across the world -- and all soon to be posted with obliviousness in the fractal gallery section of an art community near you. Hide your eyes!! Save yourself!!

And, finally, here's a puzzler to scratch your head over. I see OT former heckler Ken Childress currently has the prominent lead blurb on the main Ultra Fractal site. Bubbling over with enthusiasm and hyperbole, he gushes:

This program is the most versatile and easiest to use of just about any program I have used, not just fractal programs.

Oh really? No learning curve at all, huh? Easier to use than either MS Paint or Elf Bowling, is it? Then why does the main UF page suggest users could perhaps benefit from preparatory coursework by highlighting a salient link to UF classes taught at the Mississippi School of Anti-Fractal Art™? And I see its web page on UF instruction opens with the following:

Ultra Fractal is a powerful, feature-rich, and extremely versatile fractal generator that allows the user to explore many types of fractals and to create amazing images. But it has, by nature, a very steep learning curve.

Somebody needs a time-out and should go sit in the corner for stretching the truth...

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Image of the Week: Polyscene

I stumbled on another interesting find over at Fractal Origami.

fractal by polyscene

Although I'm sure work like this is painstaking and requires considerable skill in the more advanced origami techniques (there's a special technique involved in making some of these folds), what caught my interest was its artistic appeal. In the hands of a skilled artist like polyscene (no capitals), a medium as simple as lettersize (A4) paper, along with careful lighting, can acquire the depth and subtle detail of an oil painting.

straight arrow tile by polyscene

Although I don't think this second one has the fractal qualities of the first, it does have an interesting tessellated (interlocking) pattern, and that's mathematical enough for me to toss it into the fractal category. Once again, the careful lighting has a dramatic effect and in this case turns the simple origami structure into a looming cliff of folded ferocity.

kite repeat by polyscene

Ever tried making seamless tiles -- by hand? Another power piece by polyscene. It's interesting how one can instantly recognize this as a photograph of something real and not a clever digital creation. I guess even a surface as uniform as plain white paper is actually quite complex and not a simple task to imitate with algorithms. There's a rigidity to the paper here that almost suggests it's carved plaster. I guess that's the effect of the special, clean folding technique that polyscene mentions elsewhere on her site that makes it look embossed or pressed, rather than bent and folded.

monomino triomino straight tile by polyscene

More tessellation, but the lighting produces such variations of the color gray to almost be a complete spectrum of it's own. Perhaps it's not so impressive knowing that it's a photograph of an origami sculpture, but I think digital art causes one to look more closely at an image and see it as a unique and singular creation and not merely as a variation of another object under differing kinds of lighting.

Well, I don't expect polyscene will be making too many more fractals anytime soon because it's hard work; not like the digital -- click, click, presto! -- kind that we make on a computer. Anyhow, I've found this first attempt to be very impressive and I declare polyscene to be the official discoverer of this new world of paper fractals. Let's take this day off every year and celebrate.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

An "Our Ears Are Burning" Update

I've been experiencing hot flashes around the ears lately. I think a round-up of the latest buzz reactions to Orbit Trap might be in order.

Let's start with Keith MacKay's most recent exercise in pouting:

It looks like Orbit Trap is taking credit for ridding the Internet of the most recent calendar images. I suppose that they could be right by taking credit. I do not know why the calendar web site was modified but I do know why I removed my images from my sites. It was because of OT but not because of their criticism. I can handle criticism. Art is subjective and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Besides, if it comes from someone that I do not respect, it is easy to ignore.

The calendar images are governed by contract law as well as copyright law. I removed my images in order to maintain control over them. I felt like I needed to do that after OT ignored my 2 requests to remove my image. They are blowing their horn because they think that it was their criticism that caused the removal. I do not know about the calendar website, but for my part this is not the case. OT reminded me that Internet is not a safe place to put property that should be protected.

What's that smell in the air? Could it be hypocrisy? If MacKay really believes the Internet is "not a safe place" in which to display "property that should be protected," then he should consider immediately removing all of his art work from the web. Is his gallery at Renderosity, for example, any more "protected" than the Fractal Universe Calendar site? Aren't his images just as much at risk there and elsewhere from being used as part of an art review? If he chooses to place his art in public, he -- or any artist -- will unremittingly run a risk that such displayed work could be used as part of a public commentary -- and not necessarily a positive one.

It is easy to forget such hazards if one becomes accustomed to being safely nestled in the loving arms of a Fractalbook art community where every new post is swooned over and reaffirmed as a work of genius. Apparently, in MacKay's worldview, images need no protection as long as they are placed in an environment filled with verbal hugs and kisses. One wonders if MacKay would be as quick to cry foul if OT had posted a positive review of his work. If so, did he also object when this blog used several of his images in their review? I see no notice that his art was used with permission, and I find no comment from MacKay demanding "protection" for his property. It certainly looks like MacKay requests removal of his images only when they are used in a less than positive context.

Finally, and let's be clear here, Orbit Trap has done nothing wrong under the "fair use" clause of copyright law. Here is an excerpt from the Copyright and Fair Use site at Stanford University:

Fair use is a copyright principle based on the belief that the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of commentary and criticism. For example, if you wish to criticize a novelist, you should have the freedom to quote a portion of the novelist's work without asking permission. Absent this freedom, copyright owners could stifle any negative comments about their work.

MacKay says he can "handle criticism," but it looks to me like he'd much rather stifle it. Note this statement: "I removed my images in order to maintain control over them." Control. That says it all. MacKay is confusing control over his images with the public's constitutional freedom to comment on and criticize those same images. MacKay wants an audience, but only one that behaves the way he likes. The fair use provisions of copyright law were written precisely to counter this sort of manipulation of free speech.


Meanwhile, former heckler WelshWench still has plenty to say about Orbit Trap. In fact, she seems to be devoting much of her blog space to our many atrocities. I'd provide a link, except I worry about being held responsible for our faithful readers risking losing trillions of brain cells. Well, if you dare, there's always Google. Here's a short sampler of her latest rant:

The question always raised by OT’s smug expressions of superiority is why on earth do they insist on complaining about styles of art they personally dislike? Because that’s all it is: they’re not any more qualified to pass opinions than you, gentle reader, or I -- unless it is a personal opinion. They wish to be arbiters of taste: well, wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t life just be hunky-dory if we never had to rest our eyes on images we find unpleasant, trite, poorly composed or coloured? Goodness: if that happy day ever came to pass I wouldn’t have to look at any more of OT’s own efforts!

There's that same smell again. Follow along, if your eyes aren't glazed over yet. We at Orbit Trap aren't "more qualified to pass opinions" than you? As far as I can tell, all we've ever offered on this blog is a "personal opinion." But, gentle reader, by her own logic, what makes WelshWench more qualified than you to devote half her blog to passing opinions on us? You see what I mean? It's a blogging-from-glass-houses kind of deal. Or maybe a judge-not-lest-ye-be-judged thingie.

And, as far as I know, no one has WelshWench strapped in a chair, like Malcolm MacDowell in Clockwork Orange, with her eyes pried open impelling her to look at Orbit Trap's "efforts." Assert your forceful will, assuaged Wench. Ignore us -- and your "happy day" will soon arrive. Oh. But wait. What would you then have to write about?

This is what I get for insisting on complaining about styles of art criticism I personally dislike!!


Orbit Trap got the following write-up in the links section of High Precision Deep Zoom:

If you thought this was a calm, benign field, think again. This blog offers a completely, totally different perspective on fractal art by commentators who are clearly not afraid to speak their minds. Like it or not, this blog advocates (somewhat viciously at times) for the continued progression of the art and shows no mercy.

Advocating a "continued progression" of fractal art is no cakewalk -- especially when one considers the prevailing and entrenched hierarchy, the perks enjoyed by the favored few via corrupt competitions, and the fuzzy snuggly rampant kitsch and sycophantic backslapping overrunning the Fractalbook art communities. Sorry about that claim of viciousness. A deep zoom of OT's archives will show we have only responded in the same manner that we were greeted and treated.


Update: It has been brought to my attention that MacKay left the following comment in the blog I referenced that also posted several of his images for review purposes:

I'm glad that you like my images, but it would have been nice to know that you were putting them here. It's not a problem. I just like to know where my stuff is. Thanks.

Translation: MacKay likes the fact that the guy thinks he's great. MacKay doesn't like the fact that the guy didn't book an appointment with him in advance to tell him he's great.

Bottom Line: If a review is positive, even though permission was not granted, the use of MacKay's art is "not a problem." However, if a review is negative, then MacKay's requests for immediate removal begin to pour in. Control, it seems, is situational and very tone-sensitive.

And speaking of liking to know where stuff is...

Where, exactly, did the images selected for the 2009 and 2010 editions of the Fractal Universe Calendar go? And, more to the point, why were these images abruptly removed -- without any explanation -- from the calendar's web site?

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Disappeared Art

Nothing to see here.  Move on...

Disappearing should be an art form, a seductive way of leaving the world. I believe that part of disappearing is to disappear before you die, to disappear before you have run dry, while you still have something to say...
--Jean Baudrillard

As Tim noted yesterday, the online images for the 2009 and 2010 editions of the Fractal Universe Calendar have disappeared.

Continuing their unbroken pattern of maximum secrecy, neither the current editor nor the publisher -- Avalanche Publishing -- apparently feels the fractal community deserves any explanation for this sudden turn of events. The FUC folks certainly weren't shy about asking fractal artists to go to the trouble of making and submitting work -- even if those who administer the calendar will no longer go to the trouble of displaying the contest's winning images -- and, of course, certainly can't be bothered to explain the reasons for their abrupt change in policy. I suspect Tim's speculation is on target. It's a deliberate move designed to soften criticism from guess who.

So, isn't it at least a little ironic that the only current online source to showcase a number of the winning entries for the 2010 Fractal Universe Calendar Contest is -- wait for it -- Orbit Trap?


Yes. I know. It is tiring when the FUC's myopic critics just can't grasp that the Fractal Universe Calendar is (to quote its website) *not* a contest -- especially critics like Diane Cipollo over at Bella Online. She was more than jubilant (although probably supernaturally pre-influenced by Orbit Trap via a time traveling wormhole) back in 2004 to be one of the town criers for the 2006 edition of the Fractal Universe Calendar. Why she even seemed to be on a first-name basis with the editors for that year: Tina and Linda. And what was the title of her article? As Condi Rice once said -- I believe the title was:

Open Call for Fractal Universe Calendar Contest

No doubt OT's former hecklers will immediately begin armoring up (in a strictly semi-rhetorical fashion) and making plans for invading Cipollo's comments section to verbally set her straight. I guess she didn't get the talking points memo.


And inquiring minds might be asking why Damien M. Jones is pushing the Fractal Universe Calendar hot and heavy over on his Fractalus main page -- announcing first the submission deadline and now noting that submissions have closed. Is he merely a concerned citizen? Perhaps, but an examination of the site shows the only fractal art contests announced and archived on Fractalus are those Jones hosts on his own server and plays some part in administering.


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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fractal Universe Calendar ...In Retreat

Funny, I was Googling something a week ago, and while following a link to the 2009 gallery of winning images for the Fractal Universe Contest I found myself looking at an error page.

These things happen, of course, so I went to the main page and noticed that both the 2009 and 2010 galleries -- had vanished!

Naturally, in keeping with the general atmosphere of secrecy and silence that I've experienced with the Fractal Universe Calendar, there is still no mention of anything to do with this strange metamorphosis of the gallery displays. Since it's been a week, I'm sure it's not a technical problem but rather an "editorial" decision -- a change in policy.

Which of course raises the questions, "Who? and Why?"

That's all Orbit Trap can really do -- raise questions. Questions that people seem to prefer to avoid, not to answer. So I'm not expecting to find out what's been going on over there any time soon.

My best guess is that Avalanche Publishing has decided not to post the winning images from their annual Fractal Universe Contest anymore while that calendar is still being sold, as an attempt to avoid online criticism of their current (or future) products. That would mean the 2009 images would go on display in October 2009, when I believe the 2010 calendar replaces it in Avalanche's product line.

It's a small victory for Orbit Trap, but a victory nonetheless. Perhaps the retreat of the Fractal Universe Calendar back to the display racks of drugstores and shopping malls and away from the front lines of the online Fractal Art world is a sign that the Fractal Art genre is maturing into a respectable art form. Avalanche Publishing seems to think so.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Fuzzy Times in Fractalville

My apologies to jamfancy, Funny Bunny and tibiloo, but I found this online vignette was just too precious not to share it with the loyal, die-hard, though thick and thin, grassroots supporters of Orbit Trap -- the greatest thing since sliced Mandelbrot. (That's a joke on the German word for "bread").

Want a link to the original? -- go find it yourself!

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Image(s) of the Week: 6 Reviews Using 6 Words

Shield by Tamrof Boynton

Shield by Tamrof Boynton

Superb minimalism. Careful composition. So lovely.

Dog03 by Cornelia Yoder

Please. Merciful God. Make it stop.

Signal by Earl L. Hinrichs

Coming through clearly for ten years.

Shroomies by Stan Hood

Shroomies by Stan Hood

Shroomheads understand why Stan is God.

Bird's Eye Primrose by Harmen Wiersma

Bird's Eye Primrose by Harmen Wiersma

Absence makes the fractal grow fonder.

deepnessinthesky_nuked by lyc

deepnessinthesky_nuked by lyc

Someone left the cake out in the rain Strontium-90-laced radioactive fallout.


Yes. I know. That last one was twelve words. It just kind of got away from me.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Manas Dichow - Image of the Week

"After 85 gazillion fractals, I broke the camera out."
-Manas Dichow on his Flickr site
Egold: "Love this one but it's pity that yo've gone into "fractals" dream."

Manas Dichow: "egold, Photography isn't dead yet. Fractals are just a current obsession."
"It's amazing to me that this software can continue to produce such a broad range of images. I've barely scratched the surface of what Ultra Fractal can do.
"PS; This image created with "Ultra Fractal 4.04"
Best viewed in Large "

I've been ending up at quite often lately, following links to digital artwork from other websites (it's not just a site for photographs). So I thought I'd try searching Flickr for fractal art.

I found a much more interesting mix of fractal art on Flickr than on Renderosity or Deviant Art; perhaps because the Flickr crowd is a more eclectic group of people? I don't know, I was just very glad to have stumbled on this image by Manas Dichow after surfing through the link and "award" infested waters of Flickr. Manas' image here was a real sight for sore eyes.

Burma Wishes by Manas Dichow 2008

The comments sections of many Flickr galleries make the contortionist back-slapping and self promotional social networking comments of Renderosity and Deviantart look mild in comparison. On Flickr, they've even brought back the concept of "link-awards". "Will you please put this link to my website on your page? -- it's an award!" Manas doesn't need any of that to promote his work though, his artwork stands out on its own merits and I found it pretty quickly browsing through the other stuff posted to the Fractal category on Flickr.

Although Manas seems to be relatively new to fractal art (First fractal, Apophysis, Dec. 22, 2007) he's not new to producing art and he brings a fresh perspective to fractal art, a genre which I would say, over the years, has become sadly inbred and populated with enlarged headed, banjo-playing, spirals.

I've heard that Ultra Fractal has a steep learning curve, but it seems Manas has had no trouble climbing way up there in a short time. But then Manas is no stranger to high heights; he was an accomplished member of a sky-diving team back in the 70's when I was still learning to ride a bike. Speaking of bikes, here's the artist on a motorcycle.

Bullseye Series #2 by Manas Dichow 2008

I really like the coloring in this one, Bullseye #2. Color is another aspect of fractal art that seems under-developed to me. So much of fractal art seems to have the same "style" or flavours in coloring. Manas' image here is a nice departure from that. I also like the rough, jagged and more natural and wild appearance to everything. Manas has also produced many of the shiny, polished type of fractals which Ultra Fractal is known for, but he's also managed to produce a wider variety of images than many UF artists who have been working with the program for years.

Burma Wishes also has a more interesting and "raw" look to it's composition. It's not the same old slick stuff that I keep seeing elsewhere, this has a fresh, natural style about it. And the coloring is bright, but not over-saturated or overdone.

I couldn't end this posting without talking about Manas' very impressive photographic works that are also part of his Flickr site.

Doorway With Wall by Manas Dichow 2007

In addition to the fine composition and other standard photographic skills that this photo demonstrates, it's a good example of the power of High Dynamic Range Imaging. Basically, if I understand this right (I just discovered it on Manas' site here) it's a composite of several layers taken at different exposure settings. It's interesting because there are photoshop filters that attempt to render the same effect by combining different contrast levels into a single image, making the darker parts lighter and the lighter ones darker. I think the effect of HDR produces a photograph which is actually more natural looking, as our eyes instinctively compensate for various light levels when viewing scenes like the one in Manas' photo above. HDR is a better representation of what the human eye sees.

It's also interesting to note the link that Manas' work makes with photography and fractal art. I've noticed that there are many fractal artists who also find photography very exciting as an artistic medium. Perhaps there are some strong similarities between the two art forms, despite the obvious differences in hardware used.

Anyhow, I hope you've all enjoyed this brief introduction to new and wonderful work of Manas Dichow. Next week we'll have another Image of the Week.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

What We Know and What We Don't Know

State of the Art Fractal Art for 2010

Six Images from The Fractal Universe Calendar 2010

Break out the cheese dip, fractal artists. Your 2010 Fractal Universe Calendar (hereafter known as the FUC) has finally arrived.

You might not have noticed, though. Although there was plenty of publicity earlier this spring calling for submissions in various fractal haunts, the announcement of this year's winners has been a pretty lo-fi affair.

Given the high degree of secrecy surrounding the internal operations of the FUC, I figured it might be helpful to break this review into two parts: what we know and what we don't know.

What We Know:

We know images selected for the Fractal Universe Calendar are determined by holding a contest -- contrary to the claims of the editor, the publisher (Avalanche Publishing), the FUC website, and Orbit Trap's most voracious adversaries. How are art contests generally run? Submissions are sent, are pared down by screeners, and winners are selected from among the finalists by a judge or judges. How is the FUC run? Submissions are sent, are pared down by an editor or editors, and winners (images selected for the calendar) are chosen from among the finalists by Avalanche's "publishing team." See the big difference? The FUC folks and their droogies are hedging their bets you won't notice the semantic substitutions they've made: editor for screener and publishing team for judges. And why not? Such doublethink is currently enjoying a pretty good run and has met with considerable success in recent years -- at least in the United States. The Bush Administration, for example, simply changes the name for rampant clearcutting to healthy forests initiative. Presto!! Truthiness to the rescue!! No wonder everyone associated with the FUC constantly shouts in your face that the whole enterprise is NOT A CONTEST. Without the means of a contest format, the privileged ends of some participants could not be achieved.

We know that from 2004-2008, just over 40% of the images that appeared in the FUC were the work of only four people: three former editors and the current editor. This year, images by past and present editors come in at 31% -- better, yes, but still comprising nearly one-third of the winners. There are no records of any contests before 2004 on the FUC site, so a comprehensive number-crunching of the entire FUC history is not possible -- or, at least, not available to Orbit Trap.

We know the editor, Panny Brawley, who did the initial screening, has her own work included in the calendar. This practice is called "a payment." Brawley also received a real payment of $200 -- the standard acceptance fee per image (a cover pays $400). All FUC editors receive such "compensation." We also know that including a judge's work in a contest is universally considered professionally irresponsible, since the practice raises the stakes for questions on how that contest handles matters like conflicts of interest, ethical lapses, fairness, and other possible improprieties. Both the Fractal Universe Calendar and the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Competition include the work of judges in their products/exhibitions.

We know Linda Allison, former FUC editor, collected the most booty this year. She made $600 and is the only artist who had two images (one the cover) accepted. In fact, according to the merchandise page on Allison's web site, she has appeared in every Fractal Universe Calendar since 1999.

We know Tina Oloyede, another former FUC editor, has an image accepted. She is was listed as the webmistress responsible for maintaining the FUC web site.

We know that two of the past FUC editors selected for this year's calendar also have served as judges for the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest and had and/or will have their self-selected work exhibited with that contest's "winners."

We know that Toby Marshall has an image accepted. In fact, he told us so himself. You'll find Marshall's very public defenses of the FUC scattered throughout OT's comments. Another OT hater and FUC defender, Ken Childress, admitted in a recent post on his blog that he "snagged" $600 from the 2003 FUC for two images (including the cover).

We know that former FUC editors have sometimes had more than one image accepted for calendars they have edited. Keith MacKay, one of last year's editors, had two images (including the cover) accepted for the 2009 edition. This means that editors can select their own work to be among the "finalists" that are sent ahead to the judges.

We know that the Fractal Universe Calendar is the only annual, mass market publication that features a selection of contemporary fractal art and artists culled by using a competitive format.

We know that the prevailing aesthetic criteria for the majority of the images consistently appearing in the FUC is a heavily saturated spiral produced most commonly by Ultra Fractal and initially popular circa ten years ago.

We know that nearly all the present and past editors use and are associated with using Ultra Fractal as their primary software. The same is true for the judges of the BMFAC. We also know that the majority of images selected for publication/exhibition for both contests were made using UF.

We know there is a possibility that some images for the calendar may have bypassed the juried submission process and been directly solicited. The FUC FAQ notes:

Q: Will artwork, other than that submitted to you via this website, be considered for inclusion for the calendar?

Yes -- possibly. In the past, Avalanche Publishing has requested specific fractals or fractal types. Special requests of individual artists may be made by approaching them directly.

We know the FUC contest does not use blind judging. From the FUC FAQ:

Q: Should I add a signature and copyright notice to my jpg files?

If you wish you may add this to your 600x600 fractals [the required size for submissions], but please do so in a way that does not mar the quality of the image. Initial submissions to the editors or publisher will not be used for any purpose other than to make the final selection for the Fractal Universe Calendar 2010.

We know that the Orbit Trap bloggers posted blog entries, emailed correspondence, and sent personal letters to the editor and to Avalanche Publishing asking them numerous times to address questions we raised and to clarify their practices. They ignored our requests, and we received no replies from anyone associated with the contest.

What We Don't Know:

In a word: plenty.

We don't know who Avalanche's judges ("publishing team") are. In any legit contest, you know upfront and from the beginning the names of the judges and generally are given information about their professional qualifications and accomplishments. The FUC web site repeatedly uses the plural pronoun us. Since only Brawley is specifically mentioned, who are us? Are members of the Avalanche publishing team: artists? art critics? curators? programmers? mathematicians? people associated with fractal art in any way? Are any of the artists who appear or have appeared in any FU Calendar on the current or any previous publishing team? Have any of the BMFAC judges ever been on any iteration of the publishing team? Are there any personal connections (family members, former students, etc.) between those who submit and those who judge? How can one ascertain the professionalism of a contest if the editor(s) and publisher insist that the contest judges not be known?

We don't know how many artists appearing in any given calendar were directly solicited and did not have to be juried through the standard submission process. In other words, how many people regularly get a free pass to slip into the calendar unnoticed (and unjudged) through the back door? Are some of the solicited artists also former editors whose work appears regularly and comprises roughly 30-40% of each calendar? Why won't the FUC site or Avalanche Publishing release a list of names of those artists who were approached directly? Moreover, why do the calendar's organizers refuse to print a list of both the artists and the images that were sent on as finalists? The BMFAC, to its credit, lists all submissions, winners, alternates, and (an army of) honorable mentions. In fact, it is common for art contests to list the names and titles of finalists. Why do the FUC editor(s) and publisher fear releasing such information openly?

We don't know why the FUC web site is not housed on Avalanche's main site and/or server. Why is it set up as a separate web page -- almost like an offshore pirate radio station? A much more common arrangement for a publishing venture would be to find it indexed on the publisher's main site -- complete with a listing of staff. Moreover, the site would be run by the publisher -- and not independently farmed out to the editors who are employees. So, who hosts the FUC web site, and what is their compensation for doing so?

We don't know why information about the FUC contests stops at 2004 on its main web site. If the answer is lack of space, then why not just list the information about past artists and include only thumbnails -- or even just one page of plain text? You'd think the organizers would want to showcase the calendar's history and commercial staying power.

We don't know why the artists are paid a flat fee instead of royalties. What rights do artists maintain for their images? And, in a related matter, how lucrative is the calendar for the publisher? The FUC must continue to make a reasonable profit or it would cease to exist. Their profits are none of my business, you say? Maybe so. I only ask because many distributors of media content pay royalties for images they accept. And, if I was an artist about to appear in a mass market publication, I'd be asking myself these very questions. I have musician friends who wish now they had done a bit more research on the contracts they naively accepted from their record companies.

We don't know what safeguards are in place to prevent editors from recognizing the work of family, former students, or friends. Any? None are spelled out on the FUC web site -- which even states that submissions may contain identifiable signatures. For that matter, how many images of an editor's own work is she or he allowed to include in the finalists that are sent forward to the publishing team? One? Five? Ten? Are editors allowed to directly solicit material from other artists (and with what, if any, limitations), or is that a prerogative limited only to judges?

Too many questions? Are we a little paranoid? Maybe we'd feel less like the organizers weren't hiding something if they weren't hiding almost everything. And, truly, we'd be pressing less hard if they'd just come out and made a good faith effort to answer some of our questions when we initially asked them.


And there you have it. Orbit Trap has already made clear how we feel about this particular publicity stunt masquerading as a contest that consistently feathers the nests of a privileged few. You can read about our take in the archives until your eyes ache. But all we ask is that you draw your own inferences and conclusions from what is known (and, in some cases, had to be dug up and pried out) about this contest -- and then ask yourself why the FUC organizers are very determined to keep so much internal information unknown. We asked about the particulars for you many times and in multiple ways. We got drawn blinds and slammed doors for our efforts.

Are our adversaries right? Are we a being a nuisance because we seek to know specifics as to how this contest is run and continue to raise questions about the whole shebang due to its secrecy and unconventional practices? Or would you, too, feel better about this business after hearing more of the details and receiving a few straight answers?

I hope you have better luck learning the truth than we did. One thing is definitely clear. The FUC editors and publisher don't want any of us to know how they are running this show. But I hope OT's observations and questions raise more questions that keep rattling around in your head -- at least until the call for submissions for the 2011 Fractal Universe Calendar begin appearing.

That's assuming, of course, you haven't already had your fill of all the "fun" they promised you'd have this year.


Wait. Don't leave. I don't think I'm done yet. Since the FUC folks refuse to soothe our inflamed brains with the balm of concrete information, we have only one recourse. Speculation!!

Now, please understand I'm not saying any of what follows did happen. Thanks to the FUC organizers' habit of thoroughly shunning OT's questions, I have far too many gaps to state in the fictions about to unfold any categorical progression of actions. I hate to be reductive and all, but curiosity about knowing what actually went down is why I asked the FUC bigwigs questions in the first place. So, given their brick wall of silence, I must turn to the art of extrapolation. Think. Think more. Given what we know and what we don't know, what overarching worldview and particular sequence of events can be conjectured as occurring behind the scenes of the FUC headquarters?

After weighing the known and the unknown, I have postulated three possible scenarios. Take it away, Mr. Narrator:

[Cue shimmering film flashback effect.]

Scenario 1:
The universe is a Fractalbooker paradise. Every made fractal, especially gaudy spirals generated in UF, is a perfect and unrevisable masterpiece. Artists flock to social communities where compliments and hugs materialize out of the ether underneath every graciously shared image. Although artists claim to want "constructive criticism," to actually give such a thing would be gauche -- and, of course, completely unnecessary. After all, criticism is irrelevant, you silly. Everyone knows the perfect fractal form -- the garish, seizure-inducing spiral -- became the official state-sanctioned fractal nearly ten years ago, and is the only fractal deemed worthy of receiving the official FUC (Fractalus Universal Code) stamp of approval. In fact, classes have been established to teach the way of the one, true fractal (hey, some scifi extrapolations really do come true). All other fractals are considered rogue enemy combatants. They must be rounded up and heavily saturated until all the art is tortured out of them. The BMFAC judges are honored by having their own wing added to MOMA. Ken Childress wins the Pulitzer Prize for Rhetoric. Everyone knows and groks the wisdom of such things. Everyone except those cowardly, involutional wankers over at Orbit Trap. Every pixel tied in some way to them must be expunged from cyberspace -- or, better yet, those rebel bloggers must be incinerated alive on pyres in order to be purified of their heretical views. Their ashes will be then shot into the sun -- and a chemical reaction will then occur turning our star into the solar system's largest smiley face.

In this universe, the FUC works as follows. The FUC editors would gladly work for free -- no, strike that, they would pay Avalanche $200 for the honor of editing the calendar. But, alas, the publishing team, after attending a weekend motivational speaking seminar run by the BMFAC sponsors, INSISTS that the editors own work MUST be included in every calendar. The editors labor long hours -- coughing and editing by dim light in wretched conditions worse than a gold farming sweatshop. They meticulously weed out any images they recognize from previous editors, family members, former students, and close friends -- until their publishing team greedhead overlords, mock laughing out of soundtrack time like braggart kung fu henchmen, DEMAND they pass on those images that their ethical qualms had previously set aside. "It would be unfair to let past editors have 30-40% of the months," say the FUC editors meekly in their best Oliver Twist voices, "and it's categorically unjust to bypass the submission process and allow past editors and friends a free pass through the rear entrance." DO IT roars the publishing team in a voice like Thor while making nooses out of their golden parachutes and washing their faces with thousand dollar bills. The dejected editors, who, in Neil Young's phrase, tried to do their best but could not, scurry about like cowed ants completing their thankless busywork and forlornly put the final touches on screening another round of entries -- knowing that if they dare question the orders of their star-chambering fat cat publishing team who spend too much time in stadium skyboxes watching the Saw series, their families will find themselves as extras in a realistic simulation of that franchise's next sequel.

[Cue ominous Jaws-like theme music.]

Scenario 2:
Same universe as in Scenario 1. After all, sadly, that is the real world. But...with two critical differences. First, every few months, the Orbit Trap blog receives a comment like this: "You know. When I stop for a moment from making gimcrack spirals and typing out supercool **V**s and read what you've like written and actually reflect on your uh ideas, I can't help but think...hey, maybe these dudes would agree to be one of my friends after visiting my deviantART page!!" And, second, in reality, the Orbit Trap bloggers have only scratched the surface of the FUC perfidiousness. The truth is much much worse than the Orbit Trap bloggers, who, in a remarkable coincidence, closely resemble Antonio Banderas [Note: my wife made me cut that part over concerns for what she called "verisimilitude"] could have ever imagined. I. Mean. Ever. Ever. Imagined.

In this universe, the FUC works as follows. The editor herself runs the whole selection process and involves her friends who are also contributors to help her. She accomplishes this sleight of hand by freely invoking the solicitation loophole clause. Her compadres are all more than pleased to host the website and do everything else for next to nothing because it means they get to use Avalanche's money to publish their own work and peddle that influence in the fractal community. All they have to worry about is Avalanche taking exception to what they submit in their 200 short list of works and wanting something else instead. They know well that 200 submissions could cover the work of 20 people exclusively. They pad the 200 with their own best works and include along with it the worst work of all the others which they know will be rejected. After all, they learned long ago that the type of work published in the calendar will never change. Obviously, Avalanche now doesn't have anything else to choose from, do they? This scenario fills in a few gaps, too. Why else does the calendar consistently exhibit a style so closely mirroring the editor's own work? And how else could so few artists be so improbably lucky for so long, such as Linda Allison who almost seems to own an endowed chair in the calendar? It's all because the editors are running the calendar as their own little fiefdom, and Avalanche couldn't care less. Why? Because the editors have done a snow job on them by telling Avalanche that what they get in the 200 works each year is the absolute best in fractal art, and Avalanche doesn't know any better.

[Cue fade in.]

Scenerio 3:
A universe and worldview falling somewhere between the saccharine utopia of Scenario 1 and the pernicious dystopia of Scenario 2.


All artists are vain. They long to be recognised and to leave something to posterity. They want to be loved, and at the same time they want to be free. But nobody is free.
--Francis Bacon

I decided not to add my usual hyperlinks to this review. Just because...

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