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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 June, 2004, 10:47 GMT 11:47 UK
Holograms: High art or just a gimmick?
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online

Before they became ubiquitous on credit cards and packets of toothpaste, holograms were the buzz of the avant-garde art world. But as a new holographic portrait of the Queen (right) is unveiled, 3D pictures are sneered at by the art elite.

When Margaret Benyon installed her "stereo painting" Web in London's cutting-edge Lisson Gallery in 1970, the whole world wanted to know.

"There were queues around the block," says Benyon, recalling the sudden wave of interest in the exhibit, one of her first exploits in holographic art.

A few years later the queues were even longer, this time snaking around the courtyard of the hallowed Royal Academy, as the public patiently waited to see an exhibition of holographic art called Light Fantastic. (The show was so successful it was resurrected shortly afterwards.)

Today, Benyon, "the mother of British holography", has all but given up on the medium to which she devoted her entire career.

I had more requests for exhibitions than I could meet, I went from one fellowship to another around the world
Margaret Benyon

Tired of being ignored by the artistic establishment she also lacks the cash to finance what is a costly, and highly volatile, pursuit.

Holography - the science, or art (and therein lies a well trodden debate), of making holograms - was born in the 1960s with the invention of lasers.

By splitting a laser beam over an object and recording the light pattern on chemically sensitive film, it became possible to make a three-dimensional representation on a flat surface.

It was one of the "white heat" technological breakthroughs of the decade, to some minds akin to the founding of photography a century earlier.

Forty years on, holograms have indeed become part of the everyday. As anti-forgery devices, they appear on credit cards, bank notes, concert tickets and bottles of wine.

Advertisers have seized on holography's potential to make a strong statement. Chris Levine, the man behind the holographic portrait of the Queen, made a reputation from putting holograms on CDs and greetings cards.

Pop art successor

Yet for some years it looked like the art galleries of the future would line their walls with holograms rather than oil paintings.

Holograms... novelties... says who?
Initially acclaimed as a worthy successor to the Pop Art crown, holography began to seed itself as a serious medium in art capitals around the world.

"There was an excitement and a buzz about it," recalls Benyon. "I had more requests for exhibitions than I could meet, I went from one fellowship to another around the world."

British universities leapt on the bandwagon. The Victoria and Albert Museum built a small collection of holograms and the venerated Royal College of Arts started an MA.

Britain's leading collector of holographic art, Jonathan Ross (no relation to the TV presenter) was swept up in all the optimism.

"Everybody was talking about it. It was extraordinary because it achieved something that, since the dawn of time, artists had struggled to do - show a 3D image on a 2D surface."

Ross, a beneficiary of the Fry's chocolate fortune, has amassed a collection of several hundred holographic prints, some of which are displayed at his private gallery in London.

Fashion victim

"I love the fact that it's pure light that's creating shapes and forms and you can catch animation in holograms so you can tell a story."

1947: Denis Gabor invents theory of holography
1960: Invention of laser helps hologram development
1962: Leith and Upatnieks make first laser hologram of toy train and bird
1977: Royal Academy stages Light Fantastic show
2003: Stephen Benton, inventor of credit card holograms, dies
But such views have noticeably fallen out of fashion with cultural arbiters. The RCA shut its post-grad course in the mid 1990s after colleges dropped holography modules from their degree courses. Chris Titterington, the V&A's champion of holography, has moved on.

A further setback came when Agfa stopped making its sole supply of silver-halide materials, essential for making holograms.

Ross apportions some blame to the hype and sci-fi associations which raised people's expectations of what holograms might look like.

On the commercial side, holography continues to make great leaps. Extensive research into holographic computer memory, which promises to store 50 times the amount of information as a DVD on a disk the same size, looks like coming to fruition.

Holographic TV - projecting 3D images into thin air - sits on a distant horizon.

But while Ross detects "small ripples" of a cultural revival, his latest purchase - a limited edition Elvis Presley hologram lamp (which blasts out the King's version of Reddy Teddy) - is an indication of where things are at today in holographic art.

"In the public mind," he concedes, "holograms have become kitsch and naff."

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