In 1965 physicist Lloyd Cross saw his first hologram in Michigan’s Willow Run, a laboratory in a defunct bomber plant, specializing in radar and infrared optics for battlefield surveillance. Scientists there built upon UK-based Dennis Gabor’s original 1948 invention that used a mercury arc lamp to create the laser hologram, the first method of reconstructing reality with a concentrated beam of light. Three years later Cross invented the first moving hologram: an image of a woman blowing a kiss.
Arising from classified Cold War research, holography was once heralded for both its technical applications and artistic possibilities. Unlike stereoscopic illusions, which employ various means of doubling two-dimensional images to create the appearance of depth, holograms are three-dimensional recordings created by manipulating and diffracting light. Proponents believed that, just as photography had overtaken painting as the dominant visual mode by the early twentieth century, the hologram would someday usurp the photograph’s position.
Cross defected from the lab amid the tumult of the anti-Vietnam War movement, becoming one of the first experts to emancipate holography from the military industrial complex. At the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1969, he mounted the first-ever exhibition of holograms. Soon after, he presented another show in New York, with a holographic re-creation of Robert Indiana’s 1967 sculpture Love. Believing information should be free, Cross then launched the San Francisco School of Holography in an old warehouse. A forebear of today’s hacker spaces, the school democratized the medium by using off-the-shelf materials and found objects. It maintained the collaborative, entrepreneurial culture of the Cold War lab while rejecting its militarism. Cross, living in a tie-dyed parachute tent, wrote about lasers for Radical Software, a publication founded by members of the video collective Raindance. He created a moving hologram of avant-garde dancer Simone Forti, and founded the Multiplex Company with a group of Bay Area filmmakers (Salvador Dalí, who created a hologram of Alice Cooper, was one client.)
At the dawn of the Information Age, holography was part of a range of perceptual experiments, from light shows to early video and multimedia art, designed to liberate the individual from the bland templates of mass media. Gene Youngblood concluded his 1970 book, Expanded Cinema, by prophesying that holography was the medium of the future: a cinema that was “a process of becoming, man’s ongoing historical drive to manifest his consciousness outside of his mind, in front of his eyes.” Seen as both primal and futuristic at once, holography seemed to present a new kind of bodily and pictorial space, a mode of communication that could unite a global humanity in a new sensorial community. “The hologram is likely as anything technological to push your subliminal awe and wonder button and leave an ancient message flashing somewhere below the surface of consciousness: Here we have some Powerful Magic,” claimed a 1973 Rolling Stone article on Cross’s acid-laced explorations.
Whether due to their technical complexity, lack of a standardized format, or the explosion of digital media, holograms stalled out as pop curiosities, sidelined from art history to serve instead as shorthand for an ersatz imagining of the future. After endowing figures like Princess Leia with spectral form, holograms began appearing on magazine covers and credit cards. They’re now being used for information storage, medical imaging, and mapping military battlegrounds. The story of holography, riddled with detours and cul-de-sacs, defies any tidy teleological vision of technological progress. And yet the wonder of the hologram still remains: the three-dimensional uncannily conjured, the virtual object both present and absent, sculpted from nothing but light.
This article appears in the January/February 2021 issue as a sidebar to “A History of Presence,” p. 62.