The origins of holography as a technology are intertwined with its creative uses. In 1908, Gabriel Lippman’s contribution to what would become holography—natural color photography—had a significant impact on photography. In 1947, Dennis Gabor’s work would begin opening doors to developments in holography, including artistic and creative uses. In 1960, U.S. physicist Theodore Maiman invented the ruby laser, which would eventually be used for pulsed holographic portraiture. And by 1967, engineer Larry Siebert had designed a pulsed laser which he used to create the first hologram portrait—of himself and, later, of his own face.
In 1968, at Polaroid Research Laboratories, Stephen Benton produced a hologram capable of being viewed in ordinary white light. Artists were drawn to the depth and clarity of the images, and it became a preferred technique for those working in the new field of holographic art. (Benton later became the founding head of MIT’s Program in Media Arts & Sciences, and then director of its Center for Advanced Visual Studies.) In the same year, physicist Lloyd Cross, who worked at the same University of Michigan lab as other holographers, collaborated with Canadian sculptor Jerry Pethick to create a simple stabilization system for holographic cameras that didn’t require expensive optics, thus making it accessible to artists. That same year, he founded Editions Inc. in Ann Arbor, which focused on producing, exhibiting and selling art holograms. In 1970, he organized an exhibit of holographic art at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
When much of laser research turned to military applications, Cross left the lab and went to San Francisco, where he founded the San Francisco Holography School to teach techniques for creating holograms. He set up a studio in the basement of Project One, a technology commune of the era. By 1972, he developed what he called the “integral hologram,” by which sequential frames of 2D movie footage of a rotating subject were recorded on holographic film that, when viewed, had the appearance of a 3D image. One piece was The Kiss, an integral hologram of a woman who appears to wink and blow a kiss at the viewer, now housed at the MIT Museum in Cambridge.
Conductron later collaborated with artist Bruce Nauman, who produced his First Hologram Series: Making Faces (A-K) in 1968 using Conductron’s pulsed laser. The show comprised 11 holograms, in which Naumann manipulated his face into various expressions. That year he also displayed these holograms at Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles and, in 1969, at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. In 1969, Nauman produced 10 more holograms, which he called Second Hologram Series: Full Figure Poses (A-J).
The Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí was introduced to holography by a friend, South African artist Selwyn Lissack, who had been exploring holography with Cross. Conductron helped Dalí make his two notable holograms, one of which is Polyhedron. Basketball Players Being Transformed into Angels, the subject of a TIME magazine article. Dalí also showed Polyhedron and some other holograms at New York City’s Knoedler Gallery. In 1973, Dalí created his second and most notable holographic artwork: the First Cylindric Chromo-Hologram Portrait of Alice Cooper’s Brain. Shot at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, Alice Cooper’s Brain currently is housed in the collection of the Dalí Museum in Spain. In 1971, the financially struggling Conductron was sold to aerospace company McDonnell Douglas Aircraft, and its involvement in artistic holograms ended.
Other artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s were drawn to holography. British painter Margaret Benyon is identified as the first woman to use holography as an art medium; she presented an exhibition of her holographic work at Nottingham University Art Gallery. Likewise, artist Harriet Casdin-Silver is credited with technical innovations including the first artistic frontal-projection hologram, the first exploration of white light transmission multicolored holograms and the first exhibition of outdoor, solar-tracked holograms. Swedish painter/sculptor Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd also gravitated to holography, holding his first exhibition featuring this work in 1972 at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
Holograms became intriguing as an artistic and innovative way to draw attention to high-end brands. In New York, for example, the Cartier jewelry store commissioned holographer Robert Schinella to produce a hologram of a hand holding a jeweled necklace. When the piece was installed in the Fifth Avenue shop window, pedestrians saw the hand projecting across the pavement.
In 1975, the International Centre of Photography (ICP) in New York presented “Holography ’75: The First Decade,” which included artists from the U.S., the U.S.S.R., Venezuela, France and West Germany. Among the artists showing holographic art were Benton, Casdin-Silver, Burns, Abe Rezny, Bill Molteni, Dan Schweitzer, Sam Moree, and Kenneth Dunkley. The late 1970s saw about 500 exhibitions of holographic art, according to University of Glasgow professor Sean F. Johnston, a science historian who has meticulously tracked holography’s developments and pioneers. Following the successful ICP exhibition, in 1976, holographic artists Jody Burns and Rosemary (“Posy”) Jackson opened the Museum of Holography in New York City, which drew over 100,000 visitors a year. The following year, the museum also unveiled its Portrait Gallery of Famous New Yorkers, or Hol-o-fame.
In the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, scientists and artists benefitted from government investment in holography. At the All-Union Cinema and Photographic Research Institute, Victor Komar and his team built a prototype for a projected holographic movie with images recorded via a pulsed holographic camera at about 20 frames per second. The developed film was then projected onto a holographic screen that focused the dimensional image out to several points in the audience. The scale allowed two or three people to see a 47-second fully dimensional film without glasses. But plans to make a 20- to 30-minute film for an audience of 200 to 300 people were never realized.
In 1977, at the Burns-led New York School of Holography, German artist Dieter Jung collaborated with Burns and others to create a series of holographic art pieces. Between 1985 and 1989, he worked as a research fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, in conjunction with the Spatial Imaging Group (directed by Stephen Benton) at the Media Lab at MIT on a cycle of what he called holographic Light Mills. Also in 1977, the Royal Academy in London presented the “Light Fantastic” hologram exhibit as well as laser demonstrations conducted by Holoco, a group comprised of Nick Phillips, Anton Furst and John Wolff. In the early 1980s, holographic art took off in Brazil, thanks to artist Moysés Baumstein, who attended Jung’s holography workshop. Baumstein gathered other Brazilian artists, including Augusto de Campos, Décio Pignatari, Julio Plaza, and José Wagner Garcia, to experiment with holographic art.
In the 1980s, corporations and media outlets also were drawn to holographic images. MasterCard and Visa become the first to use rainbow holograms on security documents, including credit cards. Between 1984 and 1988, National Geographic magazine distributed three holographic magazine covers. Selling almost 11 million copies, the March 1984 cover featured a rainbow hologram of an eagle. The November 1985 cover showed an African Taung child’s two-million-year-old skull and in 1988, a cover presented an ambitious double image of an exploding earth, with 3D lettering on the spine and a holographic McDonald’s ad on the back.
Holographic art began to slow down by the late 1980s and early 1990s. Still, Sports Illustrated featured a hologram of Michael Jordan on its December 1991 cover, and the Whitney Museum of American Art debuted “New Directions in Holography,” a show that featured artists Berkhout, Susan Gamble and Michael Wenyon. Shortly thereafter, in 1992, the Museum of Holography closed its doors; the MIT Museum acquired its extensive hologram art collection the following year. Between 1994 and 1998, artists Ron Mallory and Matthew Schreiber oversaw C-Project, a program for well-known artists to experiment with holography. Among those that participated in C-Project were Ann McCoy, Chuck Close, Dorothea Rockburne, Ed Ruscha, Eric Orr, James Turrell, John Baldessari, Larry Bell, Larry Rivers, Louise Bourgeois, Malcom Morley, Marisol Miyajima, Richard Artschwager, Robert Ryman and Roy Lichtenstein.
As author Allison C. Meier says in “The Rise and Fall of Hologram Art,” “the crowds [for holographic art] had thinned” by the late 1980s. She quotes science historian Johnston as saying, “ironically, the falling appeal was associated with holograms’ widespread availability and the consequent trade-offs in quality.” In 2000, Frank DeFreitas published the Shoebox Holography Book, a step-by-step guide to making holograms with a $5 laser pointer replacing the $1,200 5mW laser. For the first time, amateurs could easily try their hand at making holograms.
Although Meier concedes that holography has become a “niche art form,” interest remains, including the 2014 opening of the HoloCenter on Governor’s Island in New York and the March 2019 acquisition of 105 glass plate holograms from the C-Project by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, VR and AR technologies that use specialized eyewear to deliver the illusion of depth and volume have rekindled interest in holograms. True holograms are volumetric images that are visually indistinguishable from real objects and require no special headsets to view. The next generation of holographic technology is being incorporated in displays from companies like Light Field Lab in Silicon Valley. It promises to outstrip its predecessors in terms of clarity and realism and will elevate the art form to the next level.
I am indebted to a timeline of holographic art compiled by Leopold Thun and available here:
Allison C. Meier on “The Rise and Fall of Hologram Art”
Also, thanks to science historian professor Sean F. Johnston, who has written extensively on the history of holography, including oral histories with its pioneers. His books can be found here: