When Jason Sapan first started teaching holography in the 1970s, he noticed that a third of the students looked bored. They stared at the ceiling and tried not to fall asleep.
“I wasn’t emotionally prepared for it,” said Sapan, whose white lab coat is embroidered with the name, Dr. Laser. “So I changed my style.”
His new teaching style—which he employs during studio tours and when explaining the craft to walk-ins—is hard to ignore. Sapan tells endless jokes, riffing on everything and anything put before him.
When I asked him what he was a doctor of, he said: “I’m a doctor of embroidery. Nothing validates a doctor more than embroidery.”
Sapan is the last remaining professional holographer in New York City. In the 1970s, there were five studios that specialized in the craft of making holograms. Now there’s just the one.
“I am the keeper of the flame,” Sapan said.
If you don’t know what a hologram is, picture the glinting security image on the back of your credit card. The images that Sapan makes, though, are much more detailed—microscopically so. Sapan claims that if you made a hologram of a puddle, the developed image would reveal not only an amoeba that was floating at the water’s surface, but that organism’s nucleus.
Holography is a precise science, the physics of which Sapan knows inside and out. But if you ask him to explain it to you, he might hold out his hand and move it closer to his face until he smooshes his hand across his nose and eye to demonstrate the laser hitting an object. This illustrates the laser—his hand—“recording” the 3D shape—his face—upon contact.
This may make some sense, scientifically speaking. I couldn’t tell you because I was distracted by the real show, Sapan’s personality. There’s no doubt he’s an entertainer. In fact, he’s held small acting roles on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and CBS’s Blue Bloods, among a list of others. It’s his stream of off-the-cuff jokes that draw many people to the tour. Most of the reviews on Yelp will tell you this. He’s described on Yelp as zany, thoughtful, funny and (in all caps) AWESOME.
“Not only did Dr. Laser not disappoint, he blew us away!” wrote Charlie O. “Jason (Dr. Laser) is SUCH a wonderful storyteller who clearly loves science, technology and people!”
During a recent tour, Sapan took a group down into the low-ceilinged, narrow basement lab to show off some lasers. At one point, as the group stood in the dark, he used a red laser to light up a crystal and started talking to it like it was an alien. He made the crystal’s light blink each time it “spoke.” Sapan did the voices for both himself and the crystal, obviously.
“Hello crystal. I am Dr. Laser,” said Sapan.
“Hello,” the laser said in a high-pitched voice.
“Are you friendly?”
“I am friendly.”
When I asked Sapan if he’s ever done stand up comedy, he said: “I am stand up comedy.”
Sapan likes to name drop, and he’s got a few decades worth of work to pick from. Past clients include the Sultan of Brunei, the U.S. Army, AT&T, and the clothing company Southpole. Sapan has done holographic portraits of Andy Warhol, Bill Clinton, Isaac Asimov, and Oksana Baiul. He used to do laser shows at Studio 54. He has taught holography at New York University and the School of Visual Arts. And, in case you doubt the longevity of his scientific acumen, he once won the county science fair when he was around 12 years old.
The holography studio itself is not what you might expect with that resume. In fact, his storefront studio-office-lab on 26th Street is distinctly unglamorous. (One Yelp reviewer wrote that “the place looked so shabby I thought it must have been a mistake but thank God I knocked anyways.”)
You have to yank hard on the front door to open it and once you’re inside, you’ll see a sagging ceiling, water damage stains on the walls and loose screws laying around in a thick pile of dirt and dust. The holograms themselves, on display in the front room, look like murky plastic until you get close and peer into them. Only then is their complexity revealed.
“It’s my vision of a grand studio,” Sapan said of the space. “What really matters is the work.”
The subterranean lab is where the real magic happens. Walk down a narrow staircase, past hanging shovels, dollies, extension cords and a skateboard, past the darkroom where white lab coats hang, and into the lab itself. It’s cramped and dank. Off to one side is an optic table where the lasers get set up.
One recent afternoon, Sapan stood with a small tour group to show off the lasers. He turned the lights off.
“Is it alright if I blow cigarette smoke?” he asked.
In the near-dark, he lit a cigarette then leaned over slightly and blew a breath of smoke into the air. A red laser beam appeared as smoke curled in the light’s path. Sapan repeated this until he revealed a web of red laser beams.
Then, Sapan, who signs his emails “Doc,” showed the group the image that he imagines Doc Brown and Marty McFly see when they go back in time in the movie Back to the Future. Still standing in the dark, Sapan turned on a small green flashlight and started to draw a circle over and over again in the air while he blew smoke into the beam’s path to reveal a green cone of light. The cone took on a paisley pattern, the shapes shifting as the smoke moved, like it was inside a lava lamp. It was mesmerizing.
Sapan turned off the flashlight and put out the cigarette.
“Let’s go before we all get cancer,” Sapan said. And he led the group back above ground.
Holograms courtesy of Jason Sapan. Photography by Martin Flores.