Holographic Art:
The New Medium for the Twenty First Century

Some of the following discussion is extracted from an earlier paper “Holography: The Ultimate Collectible of the Twenty First Century”, which described collecting and appreciating holographic art. The discussions have been expanded to include a more detailed description of critiquing holographic art. This section will be expanded even more as the MAGHIC (My Art Gallery of Holograpahy and Its Critique) evolves.

Holography has existed as an art medium for less than thirty years and in the minds of some art critics is hardly a legitimate medium at all. Salvador Dali is probably the only giant in art who used the medium to produce a few works before he died. More recently a well-known artist, Don Close, made a temporary exploration into the use of holography, but failed totally in making any advancements or creating anything memorable. Other heroic, less famous, holographic artists are struggling to keep the medium alive. One can only speculate whether any of the holograms produced as art will have a lasting value and ultimately find a place in a respectable gallery as a priceless work of art. I am one of those who believes holography is the one medium that can play a dominant roll in art and maybe even save the world of art.

Up until the mid nineteenth century hand rendered drawings, paintings, and sculpture were the only images people could view. Hand rendered drawings and paintings evolved from abstract symbolism to near photographic rendition after various forms of perspective were discovered. It is difficult to imagine how exciting it must have been to walk from an imageless world into a church and view magnificent pictures of the bible story. Imagine the power of those who controlled the only form of imagery available. Imagine the impact of highly representative art upon archival history. For obvious reasons, religions and governments have always attempted to control imagery, and this attempt to control imagery continues today.

In the 19th century, photography provided a way to represent the world in two dimensions with images similar to what we see on our retina. Photography dealt a crippling blow to hand rendered art by providing a limitless supply of almost perfect images of the real world. Ironically, the very discovery of perception and retinally correct rendering by artists set up the field of art for its replacement by photography. Society's perception of artists changed forever. Ultimately, photography took its own place in art and was used by artists to both create and augment the creation of art. Artists have since struggled through a series of isms searching for the one magical way of representing the world that could recapture their place and power in society. After Classicism, artists gave us impressionism, abstraction, expressionism, Dadaism, realism, surrealism, minimalism, and so on, but the public still relies largely on photography to provide its images of the world. Perhaps if artists had stuck to more fundamental representations that were not reproducible by photography, such as those used by the Egyptians for thousands of years, this may never have happened.

The medium of holography offers artists a possibility to recover some of the losses dealt by photography. Herein lies a new way to present imagery. Holographic art already exists in the forms of original unique pieces, limited editions, collages, sculptures, and installations, and can be mixed with all other media. Nevertheless, few artists have really exploited the medium to its greatest extent.

Describing Holograms

Almost anyone who sees a holographic art piece immediately asks, "How was it made?"

I recommend two possible ways to answer the question, a simple one, and a more complicated one if the first does not satisfy the questioner.

Answer number one: Holograms are made somewhat like photographs; however, laser light is used (except for computer generated holograms). The unique properties of laser light allow the artist to capture and reproduce all of the optical information in a scene so that we can look at the complete realistic 3-D scene again in the hologram. Holography enables manipulating light and color more directly than photography does.

Answer number two: A hologram is an art medium on glass, metal, or plastic or similar substrate that has been treated to allow it to reflect and transform impinging light in an unusual way. The finished hologram essentially contains many millions of microscopic mirrors that redirect light rays so that they duplicate the light that had originally come from a scene chosen by an artist. By doing this, the hologram, unlike a photo or painting, acts like a window with the scene behind it, a window that allows a viewer to see light rays exactly like those that existed in previous time that came from an object, a window into the past. When one looks at a hologram of, say, a person, the hologram causes him to see essentially the same light that he would see if he were to look at the real person through a window. So one does not look AT a hologram (as with a photograph); one looks THROUGH it. The viewed image truly extends over three dimensions and can be located behind and/or in front of the hologram.

In addition to this a hologram can manipulate light hitting it from different angles differently and independently so that many images can be stored in the same hologram and viewed separately by changing the viewing angle or the lighting angle. In this way a hologram can be a time evolving window into the past. These are called multiplex holograms.

The medium of holography provides almost limitless possibilities to an artist. Holograms deal with light rays directly without the use of absorbing and reflecting pigments, so images and colors can be much richer and brighter. The full three spatial dimensions are available for use, plus the time dimension. Scenes can be produced that are completely impossible with any other medium, even sculpture. Moreover, tungsten-halogen lighting that is available today simplifies the display of holographic art so that it is not much more complicated than conventional art.

Holographic Art Appreciation and Critique

Like most art, holography can be enjoyed with no training at all, but as with all art, enjoyment is enhanced through additional education. Viewing and appreciating holographic art to its fullest requires knowledge that is unlike anything familiar to us. Specifically, one cannot see the entire holographic scene from one viewpoint, and unless properly illuminated, viewing may be poor or even impossible. Studying the content of a hologram requires the viewer to move about, to stoop, to stand on tiptoes, to move up, down, and sideways, a movement sometimes known as the hologram-viewers tango, quite commonly seen where holograms are displayed. One could conclude on first observation that viewing holograms is difficult when, in fact, holograms just contain more information that requires additional viewing. A viewer should explore the entire volume of the image and study the relationships of all lines and colors to search out the message and many features in the holographic image.

Holographic art employs many of the same tools and vocabulary as other art media including, content, form, line, color, texture, value, and shape, plus a few more, such as dynamics, concealment, surprise, and viewer participation. The art embodies the artist's communication in more language than is possible with painting and sculpture. The intent may be to provide a religious experience, an emotional reaction, a history, a narrative, an intellectual experience, or some other experience. The art can be symbolic or represent reality directly. A viewer should seek out the original meaning and objective of the artist.

Holographic art is affected by rapidly evolving technique such as recording, processing, the chemistry, bleaching methods and the optimization procedures. Artists publish some of the procedures while others are kept secret and proprietary. (Not unlike oil painting of 150 years ago, before paint could be bought in tubes.) Consequently, the technical quality of a holographic work of art can vary drastically from one artist to another, simply because the superior techniques and the superior materials are not yet available to all artists. A technical signature, over and above that of the artist, may identify the producer of the hologram.

Like photography, this art form can employ a separate specialist to produce the hologram. The artist may also be the technician, but he also may not even know how the final work was created. Numerous holography laboratories are available for artists to use, though they are not inexpensive. For example, The Laser Reflections Gallery in San Francisco has formed BACH (Bay Area Center for Holography) which is planned to provide a laboratory where artists can work without having to develop their own technology. This should offer an incentive to the artists who would like to explore the medium, but who have not been able to afford or learn the required technology. The technology and vocabulary of holographic art will be in a rapid development period for at least another twenty or thirty years, so artists may well choose this route rather than attempt to keep up with the technology themselves.

The technical and esthetic qualities of holographic art can be judged independently and require completely different types of knowledge. The following are factors:

1. Esthetics

a. Visual impact on the viewer

b. (Content or subject) the message or meaning

c. Balance, movement, repetition, rhythm, contrast, patterns, and color

e. Form (Style); the method used to present the work to the viewer

2. Technique

a. Materials and chemistry

b. Technology used in recording and processing the hologram

c. Display Technology

d. Interaction of technology and esthetics

e. Exploitation of the medium

The esthetic factors are mostly the same as in any art medium, and to some extent any art critic can judge them as long as he or she is not prejudiced by the medium. The technical factors can only be completely understood by a holographic technician trained in the analysis of recorded holograms, but a critic can be trained to judge the technical factors. The following paragraphs discuss the factors in more detail.

The technology involved in holographic art is much more complex than that of most other media. It involves elements of the most advanced fields of physics, including optics, quantum mechanics, chemistry, lasers and others. Consequently, the technical quality of today's holographic art varies drastically from one artist to another. Occasionally, a holographic artist who displays holograms of poor technical quality will make the claim that he has done so deliberately and that is his artistic license to do so. This can also be a weak excuse for not having the capability to do the technical job correctly. Although artists should have such license, the art piece will most likely tell the truth itself. Whether or not the "deliberate" poor technical quality adds or detracts from the work is usually quite evident.

The art form is more complex but also has more to be enjoyed because the medium offers the artist an ability to communicate with the viewer that is not available in any other art form. Holographic art opens up four dimensions to the artist and allows the direct use of light, providing a way to open a window into a living pastime. A few imaginative artists have already produced unique art with holography. Some examples are: mobiles that exploit the many image capabilities of holograms and the natural movement of the mobile to constantly change the image; switching lights that add to the dynamic nature of the hologram by time selecting different images; mini-movies in a hologram that are viewed by moving one's viewpoint across the hologram. An artist could produce an ultra modern version of the medieval "continuing narration" art form... holograms in windows and skylights that are viewed and time-selected by sunlight; holograms intended to be viewed differently by people of different heights. A wide range of representations of time could be devised, for example, holograms that have different images for different occasions activated by different lights. Consider the "Nude Maya" and the "Dressed Maya" by Goya. The possibilities with abstract light and color sculpture are endless. Holography offers a color palette that cannot be approached in any medium.