By Dan Daley

March 25, 2024

Reading Time:
8 Minutes

Jason Sapan — aka Dr. Laser — has made holograms into a one-man business for nearly half a century from a Manhattan street-level shop. He’s not getting rich but wouldn’t trade it for the world. (But you can leave a tip.)

Imagine if Manhattan real estate still allowed for the existence of a small storefront shop, one with dusty, nondescript merchandise barely visible through grime-tinted windows and electrical leads that seem to appear and disappear under the scuffed linoleum tiles like a scrawny Gadsden Flag serpent. Whose rumpled hors d’age proprietor spies you approaching the front door and waves at you to wait inside as he finishes with some customers, while you look over shelves overflowing with mysterious items with handwritten price tags attached.

Jason Sapan aka Dr. Laser | Image courtesy Holographic Studios

Holographic Studios, Jason Sapan’s timeworn electric curio shop on East 26th Street in Manhattan’s Rose Hill neighborhood, is incongruously surrounded by new mirrored-glass and steel residential towers. You’ll occasionally find that such throwbacks to New York’s earlier entrepreneurial past do indeed still exist, rare as they may be. This is one of them. 

You’ll also find Sapan — 74 and wiry, a template for Marty McFly’s Doc Brown but with tamer silver hair — fretting playfully about making the rent by convincing the world that holograms are for everyone — once he convinces them what a hologram actually is.

Sapan is a lifelong evangelist for the art and science of holography, ever since his father, a technical executive with Bell Labs’ Westrex division in the 1960s, introduced him to his first laser. He has his own, quite robust red laser on which he models holograms down a steep, narrow stairway in the cluttered, labyrinthine basement of the shop, a 19th-century blacksmith’s forge.

He’s also a true believer who has reluctantly made peace with the fact that most of the world thinks Tupac Shakur’s image famously projected onto a Mylar sheet at Coachella in 2012 constitutes an actual hologram, rather than a version of the “Pepper’s Ghost” theatrical parlor trick that likely amused John Wilkes Booth’s more famous but less notorious actor-brother Edwin 160 years ago.

He arches his eyebrows at the mention of a “holographic” Elvis Presley going back out on tour, or the rejuvenated ABBA cavorting on a London stage like the 20 year olds they once were, dismissing them as modern parlor tricks of their own. But at the same time, he’s not unhappy that they’re keeping the idea of actual holograms on something close to the front cultural burner.


Retail Holography

Setting up shop at street level was very intentional and fits with his authentic holographical activism. “I used to be over in Chelsea, on [West] 24th and Seventh Avenue, a fourth-floor location, huge space, like an industrial loft, but nobody saw me,” he recalls. “I was there for about five years and it meant that I had to do marketing all the time and I'm not a salesperson.”

He is, however, an innately gregarious character; he’ll wheel out his alter ego, “Dr. Laser,” dressed in a scruffy white lab coat over blue jeans, for the occasional tour groups or curious passersby who happen to wander in or find Holographic Studios’ website and make an appointment. The Doc Brown-like persona has overtones of Bill Nye The Science Guy, all references he enjoys and which propagate as he leads a visiting group of college kids from nearby Yeshiva University through the shop’s wares. As they gaze at Andy Warhol’s virtual visage looking back from its place on a brick wall of trophy holograms, Sapan gestures broadly. He explains the science while also editorializing that “Andy Warhol had the perfect head for a hologram.” The wall is covered with fellow portraiture subjects, including Bill Clinton (“A nice guy but not really charismatic enough for a hologram”). Various monsters and movie-star holograms also peer back from the walls, some with price tags and available to take home for a few hundred dollars, along with more quotidian holographic paraphernalia, like cufflinks and a tie tack that might have had a better shot at a sale in a less casual era 45 years ago when Sapan first opened the store.

Image courtesy Holographic Studios

The storefront location also helped jump-start the business, a combination of his personality and the shop’s accessibility and mysterious allure, pulling in people like an executive at the company that makes Ragu spaghetti sauce, who commissioned an advertising project of three-dimensionally steaming red-sauced spaghetti almost on the spot. But Sapan’s holographic history started at a more corporate level when, in 1968, some of that Bell Labs magic helped land him a stint demonstrating lasers and holograms at an exhibition at the Time Life building. But since moving to the shop, Sapan’s business has reverted to a more leisurely pace, if only because, he acknowledges, he’s just not a proactive pitchman. Rather, he’s become a patient digital angler, waiting for the curious fish to come to him. “People come in with ideas constantly but I would say seven out of ten [inquiries] go nowhere, and then we never hear from them again,” he says, not altogether ruefully. “But the three out of ten, they keep us going.”

He says he's had salespeople before, but that experience has represented what he believes is the disconnect between the reality of holography — the Warhol on the wall or his hologram of a microscope through which you can actually see the fly’s wing it’s examining — versus the popular perception of it: that persistent trope of Tupac at Coachella. “Salespeople will not quite understand the limitations of the medium, and they will oversell projects,” he says. “And then I'm stuck in this dubious reality of trying to explain like, ‘Your idea is fantastic, but it defies physics.’”


Portrait Of The Digital Artist

Sapan will make a hologram of whatever anyone wants for a few hundred dollars on up, depending on the complexity of the subject. But he’s a practical evangelist. A 4 X 6-inch hologram starts at about $600. The corporate work, when it's there, is still the best-paying type of client on average; he’s done commissions for Mitsubishi, Tag Heuer, IBM and AT&T among others over the years, as well as team-building exercises for Google employees. But when a young Parsons School of Design student needed a fast turnaround on a model of a dress for a project, he met the deadline, he says proudly. 

To the questions, Are you a portraitist or a technologist? Are you an artist or an artisan? He replies, “Both. I don't think they're mutually exclusive. I wear the hat that gets me the job.” 

But it’s the portraiture work that engages him most deeply. A bare drywall partition in his cluttered office behind the shop is autographed by a couple dozen visitors, some of whom were also holographic subjects. It’s an appropriately eclectic mix: there’s the sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, KISS bassist Gene Simmons, glam-rocker Billy Idol, a whimsically stylistic signature from actress Margaux Hemingway, singer and icon Cher, and quintessential New Yorker and three-time New York City mayor the late Ed Koch.

Ed Koch and Phyllis Diller as holograms | Images courtesy Holographic Studios

“Ed Koch was a lot of fun to work with; he had a wonderful sense of humor,” Sapan remembers. “Once we got through all the formalities, I said to Ed, so do you have an idea for how you'd like to pose? And he goes, well, how about this? And he takes his thumb and he sticks it in his mouth. And I went like, no, no, that’s not how we want other generations to remember you!” Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, on the other hand, looked the patrician he was as ambassador to India and other posts in the Kennedy administration, but was more curious than most others about the holographic process itself. “And he did it while wearing a tuxedo,” Sapan recalls. “Perfect. He would have looked just as good as a Daguerreotype!”

Andy Warhol | Image courtesy Holographic Studios

These are people who were interestingly photogenic even in two dimensions, but the holographic process illuminated them in ways that Kodak never could. “Phyllis Diller — her hair!” he exclaims of the session with the groundbreaking and frizz-topped late comedienne.  “That zany hair of hers was like, oh my God, its own holographic dimension.” Andy Warhol was simply made for the hologram. “He had the right look,” Sapan says. “Those big cheekbones, the prominent features, the white hair. I mean, if ever there was a guy built to be in a hologram, it was Warhol. And he understood 3D,” he adds, noting Flesh For Frankenstein, the luridly campy 1973 3D film Warhol produced.

Jason Sapan - Student Tour | Image courtesy Dan Daley

But eventually the conversation comes back around to Tupac. And ABBA. And every other ersatz holographic enterprise that touts the technology but doesn’t actually use it. Sapan is mystified as to why every US president isn’t being captured as a hologram for posterity. (Barack Obama never returned phone calls on the matter.) John Quincy Adams was the first president to be photographed, in 1843, and that technology seems to still be satisfactory. (It’s not like they renounced modernity: Cal Coolidge christened radio in 1923 and FDR was the first on television in 1939.) “Don't you think today's important people, like presidents, should be holograms for the future?” he asks rhetorically.

Until that happens, Sapan will continue to travel down from the comfortable house in a suburb just north of the city, where he lives with his wife of 34 years, where they raised two now-grown kids, all subsidized by holography at the retail level. He’ll give classes on the topic and shop tours through which he preserves the legacies of holography’s progenitors, like 20th century physicists Dennis Gabor and Yuri Denisyuk. He’ll still be regaling visitors with ready-made anecdotes like, “In a hologram the size of an average human brain, every recorded document in the history of man can be stored,” and envisioning holographic art in the lobby of every high-tech company’s building.

Then, tongue (mostly) in cheek, he’ll motion toward the tip jar on a bench in the room, which he’s already waggishly seeded with a $100 bill, folded with its lithographic image of Benjamin Franklin on top. It’s a reminder not to take it all too seriously.