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  • Lasers Serve the Muse

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2006
Sally B. Patterson

Paula Dawson, a pioneer and reknowned exponent of using holographic images as a fine art form, has been exhibiting laser-based works in galleries and museums worldwide since the late 1970s. Her triptych, Eidola Suite, an installation on view in the permanent collection of Questacon — The National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra, Australia, illustrates the progress of technology in her chosen medium.


Paula Dawson’s triptych Eidola Suite, installed at the Australian science museum Questacon, is illuminated by a Coherent laser. Courtesy of Questacon.

The panels in the suite portray three stages in an Australian landscape: a desolate plot of bushland after a brushfire, the same plot with a house under construction and an inhabitant’s-eye view from the interior of the finished house looking out through a window. Both thematically and physically — using insubstantial light to define the image — the panels explore dimensions, time, mutability and human interaction with an environment.

The work was created in 1985 using an Innova argon-ion laser from Coherent Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., to record images onto silver-halide glass panels measuring approximately 1 m long and 1.5 m wide. The water-cooled device allowed Dawson to use the minutes-long exposures necessary to achieve extraordinarily realistic visual effects with nearly 10-m optical depth. However, it was finicky in terms of coherence and stability and required painstaking measures — keeping bubbles out of the water and closing down the nearby highway — to prevent mode hopping and blurring.

At Questacon, the work is exhibited in a room with low ambient light. It is hung directly on the walls with the rear-illumination laser setup located in a separate utility room, accessible only to technicians. The optomechanical technology is now vastly simpler. In 1998, the museum replaced the gas laser with a Verdi diode-pumped solid-state Nd:YVO4, also from Coherent. Beamsplitters divide the output into three beams that are delivered fiber optically and focused via cylindrical lenses to optimally fill the panels. The system is not only extremely stable, but it also has proved very reliable, passing 55,000 hours before requiring maintenance or service.

Once again, we observe that science can act in service to art, contributing to the incredible lightness of seeing.

argon-ion laser
gas laser using ionized argon as the active medium and applying electronic excitation in order to produce the laser light
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