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Has Holography Died Aborning?

This near-magical laser technology has become trinketware, and only one artist has really exploited its potential.

A quarter-century ago, holography threatened to become the next big thing in image-making: the cutting-edge medium that at last could give us a photographically credible illusion of three-dimensionality. Holograms, made under carefully controlled studio conditions by bouncing laser light off objects and displayed by a reversal of that process, emanated their images in an almost magical way. Things appeared to hover somewhere just out of reach, seemingly so real that you could walk around them.

They weren’t exactly like most other kinds of photographs (no lenses involved, for one thing), yet photographs-perhaps especially the one-of-a-kind images on sensitized metal plates named after Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre-were their most obvious analogs and precedents. In any case, they were utterly marvelous. And this medium seemed to be the logical culmination of a powerful impulse to capture the world in all its dimensions.

Stereoscopic vision has interested both artists and scientists since the Renaissance, and detailed realistic representation traces back at least to the trompe-l’oeil paintings of the 16th century. With the advent of photography, 3-D imaging took a leap forward. The hand-held or table-model stereoscope and photographic stereo cards of the late 1800s remained commonplace household edutainment items through the early decades of this century. Subsequent inventions, periodically introduced, have kept such lens-based 3-D images before us recurrently as tantalizing options-the 3-D movies and comic books of the post-World War II era, the Nimslo camera of the 1980s, even the Viewmaster with its little discs of paired images.

Yet none of these technologies ever became more than a fad or toy.Why? Photography, after all, has evolved consistently to encode an ever greater amount of information -and dimensionality is information of a crucial kind. But versatility, technical and economic accessibility, and reproducibility have been necessary
accompaniments to each evolutionary step, and no photographic 3-D imaging system has ever combined all those qualities. Whichever lens-derived 3-D system possesses all those desirable qualities has a fair chance of catching on.And, if it does, just as color supplanted black and white, and print on paper supplanted the daguerreotype, eventually 3-D imaging will supplant 2-D imaging.

Many of us believed holography was that inevitable development. Yet no version of it, no matter how engaging, ever actually filled anything one could describe as a cultural need. Moreover, the technology remained cumbersome and esoteric, so the number of people with hands-on experience never expanded. And though a range of notable contemporary artists experimented with it, several of them-like Richard Kostelanetz-at some length, the medium failed to draw enough dedicated practitioners to achieve critical mass. Consequently, though many museums own a hologram or two, most people today know holography from credit cards, the occasional National Geographiccover or postage stamp, or else museum-shop paperweights and other tchotchkes rendering hokey still-lifes of skulls and watch gears.

In 1992, the Museum of Holography in New York City’s SoHo closed its doors, due to lack of interest and shortage of funds. The museum’s collection was preserved, but, though it’s conceivable that some future generation may revive holography as an archaized, estheticized practice, it’s hard to imagine anyone
deciding to inaugurate a new institution devoted to this medium. So holography may end up as a curiosity from picturemaking’s past-without a genuine heyday of its own, a quirky production method for illusionistic artifacts replaced by some lens-based version of virtual reality. Or it may prove to be the true precursor
of the 3-D imaging systems envisioned in our sci-fi, the conceptual steppingstone between analog photography and its electronic descendants.

These are not mutually exclusive options. But whichever way it goes, the work of Harriet Casdin-Silver will require acknowledgment. For, even if holography turns out to be a technological sidetrack, she has produced a durable body of work. A recent retrospective of Casdin-Silver’s holograms at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Mass., demonstrated that this medium, though difficult, nonetheless permits the artist to move through a complex technology into the poetics of space; it made me wish that more artists had chosen to exploit holography’s potential.

For while more than a few artists have tried their hands at making a hologram or two, Casdin-Silver has made a life’s work of it, and much of her success comes from the thinking in this form that resulted from such immersion. Not that she’s a strict formalist; this work deals directly and recurrently with issues of gender, aging and sexuality, sometimes all at once. Its technological uniqueness appears not only to entrance audiences but also allow them to engage with these controversial issues. On two different occasions at the DeCordova, I watched museum-goers meet this 73-year-old grandmother’s larger-than-life-sized, unabashedly erotic nude self-portrait, “70+1+2,” on its own terms: with humor, excitement and joy. Casdin-Silver’s work does not hide behind the complexity of its execution; instead, it uses its fascinating form to engage the viewer with its content.

This piece, and the exhibition designed around it, made thoughtful use of the DeCordova’s versatile spaces. The show included a few of Casdin-Silver’s early paintings and graphics, as well as several mixed-media pieces and a reconstruction of her pre-holography 1968 installation, “Exhaust.”What these make clear is that once this artist embraced technology, she never looked back.Her holograms, mixedmedia installations incorporating holograms, and combinations of holograms with photographs consider the body and engage the senses, operating at the intersection between photography and sculpture. Some as yet undiscovered medium is bound to operate at this boundary. Whenever it does, Casdin-Silver’s germinal body of work will demand acknowledgment. Perhaps holography’s most enduring legacy will prove to be that it served at least one serious artist as a primary vehicle while anticipating the form that will eventually fulfill what holography only promised.

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