One of the most literary projects I’ve seen with web-API generation is this one-off Flickr mosaic, “Tyger” on Flickr. Created by software artist Jim Bumgardner (“My best work on Flickr is produced by software, rather than cameras”), the work reprints the text of William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” using letters drawn from the Flickr: One Letter pool, a collection of photos whose submission rules contain a higher mission:

Shots of single letters of the alphabetical variety. No words. No “interpreted letters”. No photoshop type.

This is a companion site to One Digit and Punctuation, with a goal of making a “Flickr Font” that you can use to build sentences (manually, or through code)

“Tyger” both draws on and contributes to the One Letter pool, acting as a demonstration of the promise of the Flickr Font and accompanied by an appeal for aid: “If you like this, help us out by adding more licensed letter photos to this image pool.”

The method of generation emphasizes the diversity and the limits of that pool in several ways.

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The “Tyger” mosaic is in poster format, with letters arranged radially by luminescence such that it appears to glow from the center. It was created using Perl to tie the Flickr web API into ImageMagick, an open software suite for image processing - although the final output is a static image and the generation script used is not publicly available.

Stare at the large image for a while and you will start to notice the design choices interacting in interesting ways with the poetic language. For example, the edges of the composition are uniformly dim by design, and the rhyme scheme of “The Tyger” is AABB.

  ... bright
   ... night

     ... eye
... symmetry

   ... skies
    ... dies

  ... aspire
    ... fire

     ... art
   ... heart

    ... beat
    ... feet

Much could be said about spelling out the words “bright” and “night” on the dim edge, or the rendering of a poem on “fearful symmetry” in a chaotically asymmetrical font. But I have in mind a more algorithmic analysis. In English rhyme the rhyming words commonly share several final letters - indeed, with the exception of “eye / symmetry” and “beat / feet”, couplets in the first half of the poem end in identical letter triples.

This high density of repeated letters strains the aesthetic of randomization - the “magazine ransom-letter” effect - and that randomization is doubly strained by only using photos with dim luminescences along the image edge. The result is a heavy echoing of duplicate photos along the right edge of the image, a photographic texture that mimics in color and composition the progression of the rhyme scheme.

Without access to the process, it is impossible to say how much of the end product was the result randomization and how much was hand assembled, tweaked, or re-generated. Whether designed or happenstance, there are places in “Tyger” where strong visual mirroring corresponds with Blake’s powerful repetitions, as when “their tears” repeats 8 out of 10 letters from “their spears.”

A third explanation is that the limited number and variety of letters available in the pool in January 2005 was one of the strongest constaining factors, limiting chance or design (a particularly irksome example is warning sign ‘D’ used constantly throughout the text).

As a generation from limited choices that it sought to expand, “Tyger” is both self-perpetuating and self-destroying. In helping to promote and inspire the activities of the One Letter pool, it was presumably one factor in calling attention to the project and growing the letter base substantually - lessening one constraint, and thus making it unlikely that anything generated out of that pool will ever look quite the same.

4 Responses to “William Blake's “The Tyger” as a Flickr Mosaic”

  1. 1 Greg

    Only just catching up on this … but I’ve always enjoyed William Blake and it’s great to see his poetry living on in this form. (Given his interest in Illuminated Manuscripts I’m sure he would have approved!)

    This has inspired me to make this FlickrFont thing available to web publishers everywhere. Simply add class=”FlickrFont” to any HTML elements that you want Flickrfied and away you go. Read about it on my post on Freshblog.



  2. 2 Jeremy Douglass

    Greg, sorry for the late response. FlickrFont looks excellent. I’m particularly interested in the ability to substitute other pools for the onletter and onedigit ones - are there other such pools, or was this done with an eye to the future? I also like the Typewritr experiment - I may write it up here soon.

    Your webservice reminds me of Kastner’s Spell with Flickr webservice that we discussed here earlier. I still need to read your blog posts and linked articles on the subject. Has anyone used this yet to make any art projects, I wonder….

  3. 3 Greg

    Hi - Yes, I discovered Erik’s service after I’d knocked this together. I’ve been in touch him with him since to compare notes, since he’s using the server-side (PHP+API+RSS) approach, while this is client-side (JavaScript+JSON).

    Re: pools. Yeah, I left that open since I’ve found that the existing Flickr typography pools are a little “polluted” and figured that if other people want to start new ones with an editorial or quality control role, then people should be able to share that too.

    Re: art projects. To my knowledge, it’s only been used to create a “Greg’s been abducted, you need to come to to see him again” type “ransom note” 30th birthday invitations.

    In theory, you just need to add class=”FlickrFont” to any existing HTML elements (paragraphs, headings, tables - or even body - tags) to turn any page into a Flickrfied monstrosity.

    Typewritr has amused my five year-old nieces (especially now with the awful sound effects) and inspired some ferocious spelling sessions.

    One idea I tried (but abandoned due to alignment difficulty) was to mash this up with the text-image service. I thought it would be cool to take an arbitrary image, convert it to ASCII art text (with text-image) and then convert THAT to a FlickrFont version, so the little letters making up the picture are actually tiny photographs of letters.

    So, you get images down with letters done with images … and if the initial image happened to be a photo of a letter … well, you can see I have a geekly interest in recursion :-)


  1. 1 WRT: Writer Response Theory » Blog Archive » Digital typography vs photography (via Flickr)

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