Q&A: Holographic Artist Linda Law
On the Evolving Art Form, the Growing Community and the Future of Holographic Imagery
Digital and holographic artist Linda Law discovered her interest in holography in the biochemistry department at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. She quickly joined the burgeoning holographic community, working as a rock-and-roll photographer while documenting the holographic scene on both sides of the Atlantic and working as a holographic artist in her own right. Law was an early user of 3D computer graphics software, which she employed to generate imagery for holography pioneer Ken Haines’ company, Simian Inc. Today, she lives in the Hudson Valley where she continues to explore the cutting edge of digital image-making and curates exhibitions of holograms. She also teaches online courses in holography, encouraging students to prepare for a new era where digital holographic displays make it possible to experience dimensional moving images without headgear. We asked about her role in the holography community, the unique qualities of holographic art, and what lies ahead for holographic technology.
What was the connection between the scientific environment at SUNY and your creative development?
That was pivotal for me. We were collaborating with Dr. Max Perutz at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. He was the Nobel Prize winner for determining the structure of hemoglobin, and we were one of the few labs in the world that was actually doing research on how the hemoglobin molecule’s shape changed. I thought about going back to school and taking biochemistry seriously, but the reality for me was there was one female professor in the whole department. I saw female graduate students taking, typically, at least a year longer than their male counterparts to get their PhDs. They were not getting the same support. And part of me wanted to be creative.
A guy in the lab across the hall was doing X-ray crystallography. He started talking to me about holography, and I was totally fascinated. And then I read an article in the Village Voice in 1975 about the first major show of holographic art at the International Center of Photography [Holography ’75: The First Decade]. I went into the city and walked into this space with a curving staircase going up to the exhibit. At the bottom there was one cylindrical hologram … of a hemoglobin molecule. Only a half-dozen labs were doing research on that at the time. What were the odds that was going to be the first hologram I’d ever see? I spent hours in there and walked out totally stunned. There was nothing else I wanted to do.
What was so compelling about holography for you?
I had never seen anything like it in my life. I didn’t even know it was possible. But there are certain basic facts about holography that have drawn in numerous artists. One is that each little piece of the hologram contains information about the whole image. The whole light field is there, and each little piece of it will show you that same light field, just from the perspective of where that piece came from. Second, in working with dimensional space, you can have interpenetrating dimensions. When you have two volumes of space intersecting, all sorts of crazy things can happen within that space. And you can have discreet sections of space lined up next to each other so that as you move across the hologram you’re seeing into slices of different volumes of space.
In 1981, you became assistant director of the Center for Optics, Lasers and Holography at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). What was that like?
There were nine granite holography tables on a specially designed vibration isolation floor, but the big deal was the computer graphics line-up. They were selling $100,000 custom paint systems for creating graphics for TV and their production lab was on the floor above my holography lab. These guys worked at all hours and encouraged me to come up and use the paint system. So I had access to what was really the precursor to Photoshop, and I would sneak up there and hook up video cameras and digitize photographs and manipulate them.
And then I met Ken Haines. He was at Emmett Leith’s lab in 1962 when they made the first holograms and holds a number of the key patents from that time. He started a company in Santa Cruz called Simian to make computer-generated holograms, and he and his daughter Debbie Haines, a brilliant computer programmer, published a paper in 1992 that outlines their technology. They asked me to make 3D animations. Initially I worked with something like Strata Studio Pro and then I graduated to Alias PowerAnimator, which was the precursor to Maya, rendering out different views and emailing them to Simian. They would process that data and make a printed hologram. You could make millions of copies of these with photoresist materials. I have a whole portfolio of holograms I made during that period. That transition, going from analog to digital at NYIT and then working with Ken, has been my process, really.
Have technical advances made it any easier to work in holography over the decades?
A lot of my students tell me they need access to optics and places where they can build their own labs — all of the same problems we had back in the 1970s. I’ve been waiting since the mid-1980s for the technology to do the things that I’ve been dreaming about. Most of the images I want to create are from sources out there in the real world, and I can’t capture them on a conventional holography table. I couldn’t use Ken’s system because they were being used for masters for mass production, and it cost $10,000 to do a master.
We went through a very difficult period from the 1990s up until around now. We’ve been through a lot of “hologram” misinformation, where the public thinks holograms are very sexy, but they don’t really know the word holography. They don’t know of it as a medium. They know about Musion’s Tupac Shakur [a 2D image projected onto mylar film using an old stage technique known as “Pepper’s ghost”] as a “hologram,” or they think of 3D projection mapping as “holograms.” I know some artists who work in lenticulars who call them “holograms” because it’s a sexy word to use. But they’re not holograms.
Also in the 1990s, the recording material companies started to fold: AGFA, Kodak, Ilford, Fuji, even Polaroid. One by one they all opted out and shut down the facilities because they didn’t sell the amount of film they had hoped to. It became a really hard time for most holographic artists. Some have hung in there and some we’ve lost. But there is life out there, and companies are actually producing film now. Bayer won’t sell small volumes of photopolymer to holographic artists, but Geola [founded in 1995 as General Optical Laboratory] are willing to buy 100-foot rolls that they then cut up and distribute. So we’ve got holographic material again, we have a new wave of young optical holographers coming out alongside those interested in the digital end, and we’ve got new digital holographic printers starting to come online, so we will have ways of producing images again. It’s been a long time coming.
What did you cover in your recent online class, and what were your students like?
This course is different to what I’ve taught before. It’s titled Understanding Holograms – From Lasers to Light Fields. It really spun out of all this misinformation about holograms and also everything I was learning about light fields that I was getting excited about. People are confused about it all. So I designed a new course. I ended up with 44 students, ranging from very high-end holographic artists who want to learn about digital to very high-end 3D animators who want to learn about optical holography. From the very beginning, the first artists working in holography were women — Margaret Benyon, Harriet Casdin-Silver, Anait Stephens — and from that point onward there has always been a 50/50 ratio of women to men in holographic art. And in this course, I have something like 25 women and 19 men. That’s been a delightful aspect to all this. The phenomenon of women artists in holography is something that has fascinated me since my early days in the field. One of the things I am currently working on is curating a major exhibition of the work of these artists.
Are you planning more courses?
First, I'm going to make this one available with recordings of the sessions I've been doing. I’m also going to do a series of monthly seminars starting in January. My intention is to bring together optical holographers, scientists, engineers and artists that are working in the digital holography realm, both in printed digital holography as well as light-field display holography. I'm starting to make plans with Geola in England for a course I will teach online early next year on digital holography. I’m also talking with Melissa Crenshaw, an optical holographic artist, who's been teaching almost as long as I have. She’s been teaching a lot from the entry level these days. How do you make a hologram simply, without too much equipment, using photo-polymer film? What do you need, how do you do this? I'm hoping other courses will spin off as we go down the road, but that's my thinking at the moment.
How do you feel about VR as an artistic medium compared to holography?
The VR crossover with holography is getting really interesting because of programs like Google’s Tilt Brush and Oculus Medium. Some artists out there are already doing this. There’s Ioana Pioaru, who’s been making 3D line drawings with Tilt Brush and outputting them into photoresist, black-and-white holograms. They’re quite stunning. Another artist, Guillermo Heinze in Germany, has been sculpting with Medium and outputting that to a high-resolution 3D printer in resin. He makes solid models and uses them as objects for his holograms. Generating a 3D model in a program like Maya is a long process, whereas these programs offer more instantaneous feedback, and we need more of that to bring more artists into this medium.
VR and AR are not holography because you have to put a headset on, or a pair of glasses, and that won't ever be holography. But VR is putting people in dimensional worlds right now and getting them thinking spatially, and that's the key shift. Step back to the early 1900s and think about what was happening then with Einstein and space-time and relativity. As happens very often in art, new developments in science can trigger different forms of creativity. A whole lot of artists in that period—Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, and, later on, Salvador Dali—were experimenting with three-dimensional images on a 2D plane. Think of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Dali went into stereo and, in that last period of his life, he made holograms. Those artists were making the shift from 2D to 3D. We're making a shift from 3D to 4D, and that's part of an evolutionary shift we need to make as human beings. We are now living in a world which scientists are defining through quantum mechanics, not Newtonian physics. This tells us that everything is interconnected on a fundamental level. Holography is the only medium that can convey these ideas visually and we all need to understand this as we evolve as a species. We need holography to help us to shift our own consciousness and holographic artists are on the frontline of this evolutionary process.
So I see VR as a transition. We'll be in headsets for a while. They still have to figure out the vergence-accommodation conflict, but that's solved immediately by a holographic display, with no glasses required. A holographic display doesn’t immerse you in the same way VR does, but as they go up in resolution and incorporate light field technology, that sense will get more real.
Light Field Lab has talked about location-based entertainment venues with very large displays as one of its first potential applications. That would provide its own kind of immersion.
Clearly, there's an audience for it. Look at what's happening with Pepper's ghost and Tupac Shakur at all these concerts. If you could deliver that on a big holographic display, wow. But what it takes in the pipeline and processing to deliver that to a big screen at the light levels that you would need — it’s mind-boggling. I hope Light Field Lab can pull that off. It feels like a big jump, but it’ll be brilliant if they can.