In thrall to spring – enthralled by algorithms.

vernal-5As spring merged into summer this year I found I’d arranged an experimental, and for me, slightly uneasy, alliance between the natural and technical worlds – the outcome is a vernal-themed kind of digital patchwork quilt.

The weather had produced a long and rich flowering season for blossom and spring flowers – with violets and primroses in late March stretching through to the crowning glory of the May blossom that lasted until early June (there’s a lovely post by Paul Evans here about the specialness of hawthorn). The roadside verges, hedges, hills, fields, orchards and footpaths around where I live had been breathtakingly sumptuous and I accumulated a fair number of photographs over these two months and wanted to do something with them to mark this exceptional season, though I wasn’t sure what.

At the same time I’d been looking for some free online software to make a multiple-image display of photos that a class of schoolchildren were going to produce. We’d only have a school day to take and select the pictures and print something out to show the grouped images so some kind of montage/collage/ gallery display (similar to how google+ and flickr photos are shown, but printable) seemed a good solution. I found several sites offering this kind of immediate service so decided to use the spring photographs as a trial and uploaded the images.

The uneasiness about this alliance stemmed from the fact that I’d spent a good many years from the mid 1980s to 2004 creating multiple-image displays for both personal projects and for commission (examples you can see here are amongst other design work), I was interested to find out if my skills were now totally redundant. My montages were made initially by hand-cutting sections from photo prints and pasting up a layout, but I moved on to Photoshop once computer processors developed sufficiently to cope with large numbers of photos. But arriving at an arrangement of images that satisfied me (and any client involved), using either method was very time consuming; the hand cut version was however, quite a meditative process – bordering on the obsessive.

So I was intrigued to see how the online software would deal with different orientations of photographs and two different shapes (some of my test images were taken on a Canon G12, optimised for web at 1280 x 960, others on a mobile phone at 1280 x 765). But once all the photographs were uploaded and on screen (in order of file name) I was astonished by how it was possible to change the arrangement in seconds, either with a click for a random shuffle, or by dragging an image to another location which would set the rest of the images off on their own dance, and you could do this again, and again (see video demo below). I don’t know how many permutations are possible with 40 or so photos but it must be a lot, and it so easy to do compared my own practice.

One site that produced a fairly satisfying screen-only result was Chromatic (this site no longer exists), and there was also an explanation of how the thing worked  – I’d assumed it was all done with algorithms and this article confirmed that but as very much a pre-digital-native, I don’t understand how algorithms work, it just seems like magic, and I can’t begin to imagine how you write code for…well, anything! Never too late to learn I suppose.

But there are limitations to this process from my point of view. In my own practice, alongside producing a pleasing visual arrangement with balance achieved between the content of the images in terms of colour, texture and form, I’ve nearly always included a narrative element that held the images together and that took the finished work beyond being just a bunch of pictures, and algorithms can’t tell a story, yet. The experiments here though are more of a demo for myself and don’t have an underlying narrative so this is just about visual arrangements but I’ll return to the narrative thread and how it relates to this process in another post.

The site that seemed most useful for the school project though was Collage which allowed you to create a collage and order (for reasonable price but they’re in the States so expect shipping is costly) posters, towels, place mats, mugs… using a range of templates in various plain or ‘fun’ (twee) shapes, different colour backgrounds, choice of borders, fonts etc but you could also simply download the collage you’d created at screen-res for free – not brilliant for print but a workable solution for our fast turnaround school requirement. However, after a long period of fair weather, on the day of the project it rained really hard so our plans for the kids to take photos of their garden and the buildings outside turned into an indoor mixed-media activity with lots of paint and crayons so the software wasn’t needed. Never mind, exploring it was a useful and revealing experience.

Below are two examples of using the photos of spring on my home patch from these two web sites. In these two samples there’s much more variation in the image sizes in the first one from Collage which allows for emphasising some shots over others, but some fuzziness. There’s a difference in colour saturation between the two – the greens are a bit over-vibrant in the first, a little more muted in the Chromatic. Collage don’t use the same depth across the rows, which gives more variety and is marginally closer to my hand-cut arrangements, but can look a bit clunkier than the even row height in the Chromatic version below; but they don’t keep the row measurement the same, there’s a subtle variation in the height of each one – it’s got quite a full-on but elegant screen presence in the original.


Made using Collage software

Above is the free, low-res download.


Made using Chromatic software

This is from Chromatic and there are no options to download or re-set the arrangement or print – you just get a long scrolling page, which looks clean and satisfying but you can only keep your display on their site for a limited time so I’ve taken screen shots and stitched them together.

I think I’m unlikely to return to producing the montaged posters that became my signature style for a few years – my patience and stamina are wearing too thin so this may be a service I could play with for a quick visual display; I haven’t tried a print from Collage but in terms of the arrangement I think their version would make a more pleasing hard copy while the Chromatic is good for sending out as a link for screen viewing. But further thoughts on making stories with pictures will follow. (Here)