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Optical Birefringence Statement

The relationship between Art and Science has been a growing part of the art world culture since 1986 when the Biennale de Venezia was devoted to Arte e Scienza. This series is an application of physics to photography using optics as a pigment and the science of light as the content of the work.

The materials I use are completely achromatic. Color is momentarily created by an optical effect known as birefringence. This is the result of multiple principles including refraction, destructive interference wave behavior, the speed of light, and linear polarization.

Here is how it works: An isotropic material, say a piece of glass, has optical properties that are uniform in all directions and in all locations. However, when certain plastics are subjected to stress their behavior varies. The strain establishes an optical preference. This means that the material will respond differently depending upon the direction of polarization of the light that enters it. Color will appear where the internal structure of the plastic is strained.

Polarized light waves entering the material consist of perpendicular polarized components. These components travel at different speeds as they traverse regions of the molecular strain. This sets up a phase differential as the waves emerge. The amount will be a function both of the horizontal and vertical polarization of the incident light and of the wavelengths of the incident beam. If the waves that emerge are 180 degrees out of phase they will cancel each other out. This acts as a kind of filter and blocks all but one wavelength. The complement of this wavelength will be transmitted and the remainder will be absorbed. As the angle of viewing changes you will see different wavelengths or colors of light.

I begin the work with flat colorless plastic. The material is stressed by sculpture, manual gesture, collage and hot tacking iron. The birefringent event will only occur where the plastic was strained. The composition is then exposed with polarized light and transferred onto the emulsion coated receiving surface. The result is a vivid display of color in the once achromatic material.

The geometric structure, chromatic relationships and depth are defined by the formal use of the color wheel. Complementary hues mutually force their opposites away in space creating the illusion of depth. This establishes a spatial dislocation and the figure-ground relationship. The hard-edge color opposites also stimulate a perceptual afterimage enhancing the visual experience of three dimensional space.

The enlarger sees front and back of my composition simultaneously and hence a ‘color collision’ occurs when two hues are in the same place at the same time. Light is being both transmitted and reflected back onto the top layers. These optically “add” together when projected below onto the light-sensitive paper producing unique and momentary hues.

This work received First Prize in the Canadian Association of Physicist Art of Physics Competition; was recognized in the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge; and is permanently archived in Art and Science Collaborations, Inc. Featured Artist of the Month. In addition, this work has appeared on the front cover of Physics in Canada, and has been widely exhibited.

All prints are made by hand, one at a time. No camera, film or digital media of any kind is used.

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Carol Pfeffer © 2011