In a way, making a hologram is like making a photograph — only instead of creating an image captured through a lens, you’re recording interference patterns in an object’s light field and capturing it on a holographic plate. What you see when you look at a hologram, which depicts properties of an object in three dimensions, is, in a sense, a disturbance in the light.
“It’s a true light document,” artist August Muth told Pasatiempo. “It’s actually capturing how the light interacts with the subject matter, whereas a photograph is just recording the light and dark. In one sense, a hologram is recording the DNA of the subject matter, or the molecular structure. If you make a hologram of a crystal, the hologram will do the same things the crystal does with light energy.”
Muth is curating Aura Kinetica, a group show of works in holography, for Currents New Media. The exhibit inside El Museo includes Muth’s work along with pieces by local artists Fred Unterseher, Rebecca Deem, and C. Alex Clark, as well as Dora Tass of Italy, Canadian artist Mary Harman, Andrew Pepper from the U.K., and Houston-based artist Michael Crawford. “It’s people who have been working in holography for over 40 years to people who have just gotten into it in the last two years,” Muth said. “All the work is work that’s produced in this studio. Right now there’s not a lot of opportunities for people who work with holograms unless they have their own studios, and there’s only a few really existing in the world at this point.”
Unterseher, a former director of education at the Museum of Holography in New York — which closed in 1992 because of financial difficulties — is one of the artists in the show who has been working in holography for decades. “He actually wrote the book,” Muth said. “Holography Handbook is the name of it. It really helped a lot of people in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s to start to make holograms on their own.”
There’s a novelty aspect to holograms that sometimes detracts from the medium being seen as a fine art form. Holographic art really took off in the 1970s, according to Muth, and then it experienced a drop-off in the 1980s. “A lot of people who got involved with it didn’t know what to make holograms of, and it was really kitschy for the most part. It has that potential to be a very kitschy medium. But there’s a few people who’ve done really interesting work.”
Muth invited the artists to work out of his studio in part to introduce them to his process, which differs from convention, and also because they had few options otherwise. In most circumstances, artists use a complicated setup involving mirrors, lenses, lasers, and beam splitters, all used to direct and diffract light and illuminate the object being recorded. Lenses and lasers are still used in Muth’s practice, but he uses smaller optics wired to a pole that direct and expand the laser light. These accomplish the same effect as more complex processes in a more streamlined fashion. “It’s called a single-beam process, and it’s very simple,” he said. “It takes as much of the technology out of it as possible, and I just have to depend on the quality of the laser to give me the light I need: a really stable single-frequency light.”
Simple or not, creating a hologram is exacting because it requires stable conditions. You don’t see holograms of people and moving objects because they can’t remain still long enough for an accurate recording. “You’re dealing in the world of the photon,” Muth said. “When I’m making the holograms, if anything moves more than a 10-billionth of an inch, the wave interference doesn’t take place, and you don’t get a hologram.” Muth places his subjects similarly to the way that a painter might arrange a still-life or a studio portrait. He assembles the subject on a long table that weighs 14,000 pounds and floats on inner tubes to absorb shocks and minimize vibrations. When he worked on projects at the Museum of Holography with Unterseher in decades past, the rumbling subway trains were always an issue. “We would make holograms there at night because the level of activity was less and there was less vibration,” he said. “But you would have to time the trains, and it was about every 13, 14 minutes between trains. So you would have to wait for the train and then wait for things to settle down; then you could do your exposure, and hopefully, the train wouldn’t come out of schedule and screw it up.”
Holography in the digital age appears poised to make a comeback because of rising interest in its use as a recording medium. “With the electron, we’ve reached the highest level with which it can deal with information,” Muth said. “We’re not going to get any faster computers using the electron. Light is different. The next step in computing is optical computing. The holograms we make here have somewhere between 10 and 300 billion pixels per inch. It’s an immense amount of information. A friend of mine in San Francisco is a researcher, and for the last 10 years or so, he’s been developing holographic information storage. He has this little one-centimeter cube that he can record the entire Library of Congress in. Holography is interesting for the future. The Holodeck is not something that won’t happen in our future,” he said, referring to the virtual-reality simulator on board the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek. “It will happen.”