Expression through illusion

Columbia artists challenge perceptions of reality using
3-D holographic art
Sunday, September 24, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:19 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Upon entering the Davis Art Gallery, the panes of glass mounted on stands and hanging from the wall seem transparent, as if you could see the entire exhibit by peering through a single pane.

But with a few steps forward, a sudden, silent firework explodes, flooding your retina with colored lights that seem to jump from the glass sheet. By moving your head and feet, a pattern of circles and triangles form and continue to alter as you change your vantage point.

Welcome to the type of viewing that Fred Unterseher calls the “holography hula.” The dance floor in this case is the Stephens College gallery, where the holographic artwork of Unterseher and Rebecca Deem, his wife, is on display through Oct. 6 in their “Tranceforms” show.


Fred Unterseher examines his work at the opening of “Tranceforms,” a exhibit that opened Sept. 8 in the Davis Art Gallery at Stephens College. Unterseher and his wife, Rebecca Deem, have had their holographic art displayed in more than 40 galleries internationally.

(Photos by ALYCIA LEWIS/Missourian)

Holography, derived from the Greek words “holos,” meaning whole, and “graphos,” meaning message, is based on recording an image in three dimensions. Like a photograph, the light waves that make up an image are recorded, allowing viewers to see a picture. However, a hologram not only captures the intensity of the light waves, or amplitude, to produce an image, it also captures the phase, or cycle, of these waves. In order to do this and to create an image in 3-D, the artists use the two beams from a pulse laser.

“We use (lasers) for their simplicity, not their complexity,” Unterseher said. “Lasers are the closest things we have to a single wavelength of light. One (beam) is carrying the object’s information, and the other is the reference beam. The interaction of these two beams is what makes the hologram. We then play back the reference beams, and the hologram projects the pattern of light from the object which we see in 3-D.”


This piece, called “Light Hearted,” is a silver halide transmission on a plastic frame. Silver halide plates use silver chloride to create light sensitivity and were the first material used for recording holograms.

These images appear to be tangible. If you reach out and touch the woman’s face or try to feel the cool, falling water, your hand grasps only air. So goes the art and life passion for Unterseher and Deem, who have been creating art for 20 years and have been working in holographic research nationally and internationally since the 1970s. They met while working at the Museum of Holography in New York, now closed, and were later married.

Unterseher, sucking on a Tootsie Pop and wearing Crocs that match his khakis, is a plumber’s son from Nebraska. He has a degree in sculpture from the San Francisco Art Institute. Deem is a farmer’s daughter from Indiana, and on this day, two pairs of glasses hung around her neck, entangled in her necklaces. They share an interest in the multiple aspects of light, and Unterseher strives to expand the new and merging field.

“I helped start the School of Holography (in San Francisco), which is the first school in the world where you could learn to do holography without being in a physics program,” he said. Unterseher also published a how-to book called “Holography Handbook.”

The couple moved to the Columbia area to teach holography at the Columbia Career Center, and Unterseher has since retired. After moving to Santa Fe, they plan to continue their work — and play — in holography because the images and colors of past and recent pieces always have something new to offer, Deem said.

“You might see your own work 10 years later and see something new,” she said. “We learn so much about perception by doing this.”

Unterseher agreed: “What I have found, in order to understand holography, you have to change your way of thinking — the way you perceive,” he said. “You have to understand the world in a different way. It’s a guaranteed mind-blower.”


Lights in rainbow colors danced across Robert Friedman’s concentrated face. Holding a coffee mug in one hand, his fingers stained black from a drawing class, Friedman pointed to a multicolored torso near the middle of the gallery. Arms securely hugged the figure’s stomach.

“Stand right here,” Friedman said as he squinted, and the lights on his face suddenly shifted as the torso faded and moved so that two arms wrapped around its neck. But the trace of one arm still held its stomach, giving the effect of three arms.

“That is my favorite pose,” he said. “It’s this idea of transmuting. It’s like the dreamlike state when they are transferring positions. What is our emotional state when we hold ourselves? It makes you think.”

Friedman, director of the Davis Art Gallery, stared at “Folding/Unfolding,” one of Unterseher’s holographic pieces featured at the exhibit, which required the gallery to install new lights to meet the artists’ need.

After meeting at a Saturday drawing session hosted by MU and then viewing some of the holographic pieces, Friedman worked with the couple to produce an exhibit of work “very different than anything I had experienced as a hologram,” Friedman said. “Our gallery is always wanting to show things challenging our perceptions of modern day art,” he said. “I instantly recognized the quality.”

Friedman said his perceptions were challenged with Deem’s piece, “Three Modes of Knowing,” which features a life-size holographic image of her own face.

“Here you are with this figurative piece,” Friedman said. “You sense you are in somebody’s personal space, but you know there really is nobody there. You’re feeling voyeuristic and intrusive about it. ... You feel you are not supposed to be there, but your intellect knows you can. I ought to apologize for being that close. You can see that one little hair. I find that a little crazy.”

When it was time to leave the gallery and shut off the lights, the holograms disappeared into darkness, but Friedman’s eye caught one last rainbow as he turned to leave.

“Just look how bright it is,” he said. “I’ve really come to like it.”


Erin Sturguess can now see herself with so many arms it looks as though she has wings.

Sturguess, a sophomore at MU, modeled for Unterseher’s piece “1,000 Arms of Compassion: Avalokiteshvara” and came with Katie Jenkins, also a sophomore at MU, to see the finished product at the “Tranceforms” exhibit. Her portrait captures each phase of the movement of her arms and has a holographic torso that appears to be behind her.

Sturguess was struck by the way she was portrayed.

“It’s amazing how he can do that with a simple sheet,” she said. “I am just so impressed. It is not like anything I have ever seen.”

The friends slowly moved around each piece of work, trying to show each other where to stand to gain a new perspective of the piece.

“They are so mesmerizing,” Jenkins said. “You can’t stop looking at them. Every time I look at them I see something else.”

Tea Margvelashvili, a coffee store manager, circled “The Sisters,” in which two holographic torsos can be seen from either sides of the glass.

“I was looking at it from this angle, and it looks like two girls,” Margvelashvili said as she moved to the other side of the glass. “When you look at it from the other side, it looks like two boys. The colors are muter so it presents the male energy. I really like it.”

Richard Shanks, a teacher at the Columbia Career Center, had seen some pieces before the exhibit, but still reacted to the brilliance of the moving flashes and colors.

“The way they mix together as you move is breathtaking,” Shanks said. “It’s fluid in the sense that as you move, the image moves with you. It’s not choppy.”

The gallery is full of viewers angling their heads this way and that and cooing over new-found images in the holographic works.

“I just saw gray squares (on the wall),” said Mary Ruppert, an associate professor of fashion at Stephens College, about Deem’s “Leap of Faith.”

“When you get closer to them, they are these 3-D photos that are really expressive in themselves. ... I think it really stretches your thought process about what art and expression really is.”


“Oh, what fun it’ll be, when they see me through the glass in here, and can’t get at me!”

— Alice in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.”

When Rebecca Deem looks at one of her holographic self-portraits, she can see the instant she flipped her hair, for instance, or moved her eyes from right to left. In a way, she’s frozen in time for her audience.

“It is interesting to see people look at her,” Unterseher said.

What people are seeing when they look at holographic art is a frozen moment, about a billionth of a second — until the viewer moves, and the image morphs into to another billionth of a second.

“Some people say it’s nuts, but it’s another way of seeing,” Unterseher said. “It’s unique in what it is and what it’s about.”

He knows no one else can capture those images, in that light, in that moment, and Unterseher is taken by the possibilities of holographic art.

“I’m a pretty severe dyslexic, and in a certain way with holography, there are things about it that are more like the way I see,” he said. “Holography is one of the few things that hooked me, because I could take it in so many directions. We have grown up with it. It is a certain slice of reality for me.”

This slice of reality in the form of lights and colors has expanded the views and perceptions of Deem and Unterseher, and they hope it will do the same for viewers.

“It is not that you are just making holograms,” Unterseher said. “It is what understanding holography can do for the way you perceive the world and vision. That is what holography is about: blowing your mind. There is a quote (from Stewart Brand), ‘Mind damage is what we intended in the first place.’”

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