Understanding Holography

Understanding Holography

Learning how to make a hologram takes patience, practice, precision and a willingness to improvise.

As soon as Donald Thornton 74 PT, a senior lecturer in History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences, handed students in his Wintersession holography course lenses and laser pointers for diffracting laser light, they immediately succumbed to the urge to experiment. While he continued to talk—explaining key concepts like “binocular vision,” “parallax” and “pseudoscopic view”—the roomful of curious makers was distracted by what they held in their hands, eager to try breaking their red laser light into hexagonal patterns.

“I think I timed this wrong,” Thornton said with a laugh. “I should have handed those out at the end.”

Optics and Making Holograms continues an interest at RISD in holography as a studio art that dates back to the early 1980s when courses first began in both Sculpture and Photography. “RISD should be very proud to have been one of the first art schools to offer a holography studio course with strong science and liberal arts content,” says Thornton, who built upon his RISD BFA by earning an MS in Holography from MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (now theProgram in Art, Culture and Technology). Combining pre-digital photographic processes with knowledge of optics (a branch of physics), making holograms is a very hands-on art that requires precise philosophical and scientific knowledge about what makes people see in three dimensions – or “seeing different information from different angles.”

However, in combining big scientific concepts and a dense lexicon with gritty hands-on making, holography is right at home at RISD and fits in well with the STEAM approach, says Joshua Bohar MID 16. Comparing the mix of high- and low-tech devices students used to make stereographic images to how holograms are portrayed in popular sci-fi, he says that “the stuff we’re learning is a backyard tinkerers arena, and it’s awesome.” A sponsored researcher at Brown’s Laboratory for Emerging Technologies, he calls Optics and Making Holograms “one of the most scientifically integrated courses I’ve taken at RISD,” but also one steeped in an approach to making—and making do—with whatever materials an artist has on hand.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Bohar recalls, “when you look at [Thornton’s classroom] equipment, [which] is made from scraps of other things. I think it’s a very RISD approach” to use painter’s tape, glue guns and binder clips alongside a Newport Research optical table, one of the specialized pieces of equipment Dean of Liberal Arts Daniel Cavicchi helped procure for this year’s class. Since students had to set up the optical table for each session, they became well versed in Thornton’s improvisational methods for getting the right lenses in the best positions for making a holographic exposure: “break this, take a piece of that and MacGyver it,” as the industrial designer puts it.

Thornton credits “amazing RISD students,” crucial support from the Liberal Arts division and extra lenses borrowed from the Nature Lab for a breakthrough this Wintersession: making a master hologram good enough to allow for transfer copies—or rainbow holograms—for each student “willing to put in the decidedly difficult process and time required.” A three-hour class stretched to six as the production team overcame “some initial failures,” gained experience and made more than a dozen holograms. But Thornton left that particular session a “happy, tired teacher.”

Though daily setup of the optical table was time-consuming, Thornton says that learning the process is the most important aspect of making holography. “The best way to motivate students to read and understand scientific optics is to enable them to take a hologram away and be asked to explain how [they] work,” he says. Inspired by the class, students like Jonathan Chamberlain MA 16 have begun their own home holographic practices using startup kits.

“Makers get to practice production and process skills and must develop troubleshooting and problem-solving skills,” Thornton says of what art and design students learn through holography. “Each failure is solved and overcome. What’s better than that?”

—Robert Albanese

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