Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Dr. Laser has been crafting holograms for four decades.
In a dark cranny of his narrow basement laboratory, Dr. Laser takes a few long, deep drags from a cigarette. He exhales the smoke and swirls it above his head, then turns on a laser. The strobing electrifies the smoke—it marbles, like a shimmering oil slick.
The coiling smoke appears to create a tunnel. Dr. Laser loves this part. He expertly apes a mad scientist: He wears a lab coat stitched with his moniker; he’s prone to cackling and has a flair for the nerdily macabre, he admits, “like if Bill Nye the Science Guy was on mescaline.”
“Pretend you’re with Doc Brown and Marty McFly in the DeLorean,” he calls to the crowd of ten gawking visitors. And it’s easy to imagine barreling through the smoke towards a vanishing point—it seems to streak and blur.
“Whoa,” someone whispers. It’s a spectacular effect—fleeting, alien, with an air of pyrotechnics.
Dr. Laser—legally, Jason Sapan—has been making holograms and laser effects for 41 years. He’s been in his storefront space in Manhattan since 1979. Sapan’s lab, Holographic Studios, occupies a building that was once home to a blacksmith, then to facility that manufactured stainless steel tools for nearby Bellevue Hospital. He bills his gallery, which is open to the public, as the world’s oldest continuously operating holographic museum. I recently took a tour with Atlas Obscura, where another attendee, Danielle Baskin, shot immersive photos you can check out below:
Sapan fell into holography in the late ‘60s, when he worked on an exhibition by Bell Laboratories at Time Inc., the first public display of the burgeoning field. He’s worked with commercial clients including IBM, TAG Heuer, and Goodyear, designed comic book covers, and created giant DNA strands for the Museum of Natural History. Cher, Bill Clinton, Andy Warhol all sat for holographic portraits. He’s created laser effects for TV shows, and for a Flock of Seagulls music video.
When Sapan started dabbling in holograms, he says some people “immediately denigrated it as a parlor trick.” It was easy to be skeptical of the hologram, a recording of the shape of light bouncing off an object. As younger generations became less resolutely analog, he says they shed some of their prejudices. Raised on the internet, young people are used to hovering in liminal spaces.
Kids of the ‘80s and ‘90s might associate holograms with stickers, Pogs, and Pokemon cards—somewhat disposable, not quite art. Compared to virtual and augmented reality, holograms might seem like a dusty consolation prize: an outmoded idea of what the future could look like. But Sapan’s crew thinks the images can go high-tech. “Holograms have the potential to make a huge leap,” says Lily Ross, a newly minted 3-D animator who’s interning at the studio. Eventually, she says, with the right particles, holograms could be held in the air, and people could interact with them via sensors.
One barrier to holograms having a pop-culture breakthrough, Sapan says, is that photographs don’t do them justice. In pictures, the images look flat—“it doesn’t have that magic,” Sapan says. Behind-the-scenes tours at his studio, he adds, have helped kindle that sense of awe.
When I trailed him to his subterranean lab, we bypassed a darkroom, where he develops the holograph film. “It’s just a big sink,” he shrugged. The rote mechanical portions of the job aren’t flashy; he likens the chemical bath to “doing dishes during a power outage.” Sapan is well aware that visitors want to see the sci-fi stuff, and he’s happy to oblige, dialing up the campiness. “This isn’t a cat-toy laser,” he warns, wagging his finger into the red stream cutting across the room at waist height. He feigns a shriek, and a few visitors jump.
“If people don’t actually get to see it, they don’t understand why I have a passion for something that’s so arcane and kind of a cul de sac,” he tells me later. He’s eager to get people hooked, and following him on Facebook and Instagram—an older technology living on through a new one.
No one can come between Dr. Laser and his beams, even if he sometimes feels like “an ugly duckling.” He loves them. “And you’re still a swan even if no one sees it, right?” he asks.