Xiomáro Photography | New York

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The Making of FractalScapes

How are FractalScapes different from landscapes or urbanscapes?

It’s a difference in the viewpoint.  Some landscape photos and paintings present a wide view... a panorama.  Paintings by Albert Bierstadt are good examples.  Typically, you will see the sky, trees, fields, water – all the features of the land.

Albert Bierstadt (American, 1830-1902), "A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie" (1866)

Albert Bierstadt (American, 1830-1902), A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie (1866)


The same can be said for urbanscapes or cityscapes, like in the work of Berenice Abbott.  In one of her photos of New York’s financial district, you also see the features of the “scape,” such as the tall buildings, the sidewalk, the street, parked cars and fire hydrant.  But she composes these elements to present a narrow view – a vista – where you are looking through a long, narrow passage.

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991), “Cedar Street from William Street, Manhattan” (Gelatin silver print, 1936)

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991), Cedar Street from William Street, Manhattan (1936)


And, of course, there are images that fall between these two extremes of wide and narrow views.

My FractalScapes are derived from scenes of the land or of a city.  And the views can be wide, narrow or something in between.  But the photos are composed to zero-in on certain features of the topography to reveal interesting patterns.  Elements in the scene that do not contribute to these natural or man-made patterns are excluded from the frame of the photo or I may blur them so that they are indistinct.


Can you explain further using one of your FractalScapes as an example?

I was at the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site in New York’s Hudson River Valley.  There is a fountain in the formal gardens.  It’s just one little pipe shooting a jet of water no more than a couple of feet into the air.  I could have taken a typical photo showing the Italian style pool surrounded by shrubs and flowers with a nice horizon of trees and blue sky in the background.

But I noticed that the water rippled into boxy patterns radiating out as graceful arcs.  And the undulating water reflected and distorted the greenery surrounding it.  And that’s the photo I took. 

FractalScape - Fountain by Xiomáro

Xiomáro, Fountain (Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park, New York)


To me, that was the essence of the fountain.  I didn’t need to include the sky, the manicured grass and other points of reference to frame the shot or to create distracting signposts to identify this as a fountain.  Instead, through the art of photography, I can create tight compositions to force the eye toward details that reveal the hidden beauty of repetitive shapes, colors and motion.  The topography of this "scape" has its own unique features.

As a result, it’s a way of offering a different experience or viewpoint of familiar things, like a fountain.  By concentrating on the shapes, I hope to introduce enough unfamiliarity to provoke the viewer to look as if it’s a first time encounter.  This was a goal of Claude Monet, the French impressionist painter.  He wished to be blind and to suddenly regain his sight so that he could start painting things as they really are.

And that’s a hard thing to do at a place like the Vanderbilt Mansion where there is much to see, especially since it is nestled in the Hudson River Valley.  It is easy to miss the hidden beauty I photograph because one can be easily overwhelmed by the impressive wide views and vistas.  And tourists naturally want to see everything their destination has to offer.  So most are not inclined to stop for a long period of time to keenly observe and contemplate what’s happening within a small area of water in a fountain.


Fountain is very abstract.  Did you manipulate the image to get that effect?

Not at all.  The photo you see is pretty much what came straight out of the camera.  I only did two things in Photoshop:  I increased the contrast slightly and I lightened the photo a little.  That’s it.  I didn’t crop the photo or distort the image. 

The color wasn't enhanced in Photoshop?

Xiomáro  No.  But you bring up an interesting point.

  I read an article about a study done at the University of Rochester.  It seems that our eyes gather color information
  the same way.  But each person’s brain may process color information differently.  I know from experience that I am
  very sensitive to smells.  And I think my brain perceives colors a little more intensely too. 

  My living room, for example, has a color scheme of yellow, red and brown.  My dining room is blue, yellow and red.
  These are hard colors, not soft pastels.  They may sound garish and assaulting, but just about everyone who visits
  the house for the first time will immediately comment on how cozy and good everything looks. 

  So I have my camera set to saturate the colors a little more.  I find that the resulting photos more closely match
  what I remember seeing. 

And that’s the whole point of Fractalscapes.  You don’t always need to use high-tech software or fancy trickery to get intriguing results.  There are some stunning effects already happening in the physical world.  It’s a matter of taking a fragment of it and devoting the time to immerse your senses in all of its qualities.  That's when the artistry comes in, which is figuring out how to imbue such an ethereal experience within the physical confines of a two-dimensional rectangle we call a photograph.


How did you get started photographing these "fragments" or fractals?

One weekend, years ago, I was flipping through the TV channels and stopped in the middle of a documentary.  The program explained how Euclidian geometry uses idealized shapes, like circles, squares and triangles, to describe the world... the traditional lines, points and angles we learned in school. 

But real life is not smooth.  It's rough.  Mountains are not really shaped like triangles, lakes are not ovals, tree trunks are not rectangular columns and blades of grass are not straight lines.  Their shapes are irregular, but they are not totally wild and random either.  There is a consistency to their irregularity.  It's why we can identify a tree top as having leaves, even though each jagged peak on a maple leaf is slightly different from the others.

That’s what fractal geometry takes into account.  The classic fractal shape is called a “Mandelbrot Set.”  It’s an irregular shape, but there is a pattern to it that gets repeated.  The perimeter of the body is made up of essentially the same overall shape – not exact copies, but similar, smaller versions.  As you magnify each protrusion, another version of the Mandelbrot Set appears and that repetition continues indefinitely.  It’s this kind of self-similarity that we see in clouds, coastlines and mountains down to trees, plants and soil.

Mandelbrot Set

The Mandelbrot Set


These Mandelbrot Sets do not appear in your photography, do they?

No.  There are artists who use computer software to run the calculations and generate mathematically-based fractal designs, which are often very psychedelic looking.  But that’s not what I’m doing in my photography.

I’m trying to find fractal-like shapes in the natural world, which is what Mandelbrot’s geometry is supposed to describe.  So, for me, fractals inform my way of looking at things.  After seeing the documentary, I did research to learn more about the subject.  Eventually I saw that a theme emerged in the way I composed my photos.  It didn’t matter what the location or subject was – it could even be photos of people.  But the theme always centered on iterative patterns.  So, apparently, I was influenced by fractal geometry to subconsciously look for such shapes whenever I took photos.  Once I realized this, I started deliberately shooting that way.


Is the Mandelbrot Set named after the founder of fractal geometry?

Yes.  The set is named after Benoît Mandelbrot.  Mathematicians have been working through the calculations giving rise to fractals for many years.  But by the time Mandelbrot began his work in the field, computers were powerful enough to crunch through the calculations quickly yielding the shape now known as the Mandelbrot Set.  He coined the term “fractal” and, in 1982, wrote The Fractal Geometry of Nature, which popularized his theories. 

Of course, I'm not a mathematician or scientist.  So, to an expert, my explanation of fractal geometry and its history may be somewhat clumsy and primitive.  But there is an elegance and artistic sense to fractals.  And I understood enough to connect with that, which affects the way I see things now. 


It's interesting that something as dry as mathematics can result in such an artistic shape.

Mathematicians share an appreciation of the aesthetic elegance I mentioned.  But, unlike me, they also find that sense of grace and simplicity in the formulas themselves.  Einstein’s E=mc2 equation is a great example.  So, to them, mathematics is not dry at all.  I think it’s fitting that the beauty of math can yield beautiful results.


It's even more interesting that an artist can draw inspiration from math.

And mathematicians draw inspiration from art.  There’s a surrealist painting in Barcelona by Salvador Dalí.  It’s called La Cara de la Guerra (The Face of War).  There is a large masklike face with huge eyes and gaping mouth against a barren landscape.  Similar, but not identical, masks appear inside each eye and mouth which, in turn, have masks inside their eyes and mouths suggesting that ever-smaller iterations continue infinitely.  Mandelbrot saw this painting, which gave him “the intuition about the transcendence of the fractal geometry."

Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904-1989) “La Cara de la Guerra (The Face of War)” (1940)

Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904-1989) La Cara de la Guerra (The Face of War) (1940)

© 2018 Xiomáro