Martin Waugh Makes Eye Drops by Larry Singer
Programmer Takes the Milk Drop to New Heights
top: “Water Basket.” Undulating waves in this basket beg the
comparison with glass. Middle: “Untitled 5192.” A world-creation legend embodied
in a drop. Bottom: “Laka.” Named after the Hawaiian goddess that
taught people the hula style.
John Greenleaf Whittier once said, “Beauty seen is never lost.” Few
things are more easily lost, or overlooked, than the beauty of single
drop of water, and no one finds and reveals that captivating loveliness
with greater skill and insight than Portland photographer
Combining the skill of a computer programmer with the eye of
an artist and the patience of Job, Waugh, 51, specializes in capturing
the infinite forms and shapes of liquid as it reaches its final
destination and erupts.
The Path Less Followed
Although the path Waugh followed to reach his current his
artistic destination has spatial gaps, when viewed in hindsight, it is
both linear and inevitable.
Born and raised just outside Boulder, Colorado, Waugh grew up
with three brothers, who tended to take things apart and rebuild
them. Instead of toys, their father bought them tools.
“Even as fast as we’d destroy them and lose them, they lasted longer
than toys,” Waugh says. “I was raised in a culture of mechanics,
engineering and building stuff. When I was a teenager, my brother
assembled a darkroom in the basement of our house, and we did
our own black-and-white photography. We experimented with
long extension tubes to take pictures of things, like wasp’s wings.”
It was in school, Waugh says, that he discovered the artistic
potential of the computers he would later use in his career and
“Math was what I loved to do all through high school,” Waugh
says. “In college I got more into the physics of it, because it was
something tangible I could grasp about mathematics. We had a
beautiful plotter on that old computer in the computer lab, and
I wanted to recreate the beautiful patterns made by a double elliptical
pendulum (consisting of two coupled pendulums attached to a pen) in the computer.
I varied different parts of the initial conditions, such as how far you pull out this pendulum, how far you pull out that pendulum, and at what point you let them go. I loved watching the beauty of the physics and science, and those classic old film loops of drops and splashes of liquid in slow motion. I thought that was the neatest thing, and I wanted to do something like that myself one day.”
In 2001, while toiling as a computer programmer, that day arrived, five years after the birth of his first son.
The Learning Process Begins
“About four years ago I had enough equipment, and tried to see if I could take some pictures of these drops and splashes,” Waugh says. “So I went down in my basement, turned off the lights, set up a flash, a timer and started taking pictures. At first it was an education in how to get the lighting and the timing right. Once I started getting good at that, my subject became more interesting. I wanted to know what happened if I released my drop from a greater height. What would happen if I dropped hot or cold water? Could I get different types of shapes once I understood how the different types of shapes come about? First, I had to learn photography. Once I had that under my belt, I began learning about the drops themselves. Fluids are the quintessential chaotic systems, in that the smallest difference in the initial conditions make a big difference in how it all turns out in the end.”
“Vaquero Joven.” The colors
and lackadaisical posture of this shape reminded the photographer of New
At that point, Waugh also began figuring out how to turn his exploding drops into art.
“I got these neat shapes now, so I asked myself, ‘how can I get some really good color into it,”’ he says. “How can I make them stand out and show the contour as richly and fully as it really exists. So, it kind of went back and forth. How do I take a better picture? How do I make a better drop? How do I take a better picture of that drop?”
One of the characteristics of Waugh’s drop photography that elevates his photographs into the realm of art is a perfectly seamless background.
“My backgrounds are a result of a long process of trying to figure out how to get rid of crap in the background,” he says. “My tray is big enough, so all you see is the surface of the water. The lighting is typically brown on the bottom and blue on top, which represents the earth and sky. I use gels in front of my flash, and it’s all captured in one exposure.”
To produce his images, Waugh uses a Canon EOS 20D, EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM lens and multiple strobe units. “I use two or more venerable Vivitar 285s,” he says, “because it’s easy to modify them for the short duration of flash.”
To vary and capture his drops, Waugh draws on his background in the world of ones and zeros.
“I use computers to get the flash to fire at the right time,” he explains. “I originally started out by using the classic technique of having an electric eye recognize the drop as it went by and then activating the flash. Now, I’ve moved toward controlling when a drop happens in the first place. I use a computer program, with custom hardware, to control the flash, the drop and the camera. I created my own hardware and software to do that.”
Over the years, Waugh has shot so many drops, and has gotten to know their characteristics and behavior so well, that he is generally able to plan what his drops will do and what images he will get when they splash.
“I definitely previsualize,” he says. “When you spend a few thousand hours taking 20–30,000 pictures of drops, you get to know them. A lot of it started out as serendipity. In fact, the real breakthrough, the thing that made it turn into art for me, was totally an accident. I was taking pictures of a steady stream of drops, when all of a sudden I saw one shape and I thought, ‘Wait a minute—I don’t recognize that shape. That shape cannot happen.’ What I didn’t understand, and what I began to realize, was the effect of one drop being hit by the drop right behind it. I thought, ‘Oh my God, if that can happen by accident, then maybe I can make it happen on purpose.’ I eventually did, but it took a lot of fiddling around to do it. Sometimes it was, ‘Oh, I missed. OK, I’ll move it over this way a little bit. Nope, too far. OK, let’s try it again.’ ”
Above: “Vegetable Bowl.” Implausibly suspended, this green bowl
seems to be on display. Below: “Jelly Fish.” Viscous water can create
very flowing shapes, as in this collision of a blue drop on the splash
of a red drop.
The key to planning his drops, Waugh says, is understanding and exploiting the infinite variables of both single and multiple drops.
“One drop basically does the same thing over and over again,” he says. “You can vary things like the surface tension, the viscosity, the height, the speed and so forth, but it’s still basically the same drop. But when you get two drops, the interaction becomes infinitely more complex. That’s where the real fun is. Now I’m beginning to understand the kinds of timing and science of drops, so if I want to get an image that looks like a bowl floating in space, I can do it.”
Waugh, as would be expected, is as much a perfectionist in producing a final image as he is capturing his drops on his camera’s memory card.
“I have my work printed by a professional printer,” he says. “Right now, we’re using a Roland printer with Epson heads and Epson pigment inks on ViaStone inkjet paper. It’s a new type of paper that’s limestone based.”
Among Waugh’s thousands of images, there are some of which he is especially fond.
The splash I call “Open Hand,” is sort of a classic,” he says. “It looks like a breaking wine glass. I created this by forming a big fat splash, then hitting it with a smaller drop from above. What you see is sort of a crater. If I reverse the order of the drops, I get an umbrella (pg. 16). If I want to expand it out, I add a bit of glycerin to increase the viscosity.”
A splash he calls “Meditation” was created unexpectedly. “Meditation was a big accident,” he says. “It’s one drop splashing onto another and actually missing it slightly. I looked at it and thought, ‘Oh my, that’s so peaceful.’ ”
The image he calls “Amber Orb,” is one of his favorites. “I love Amber Orb,” he says. “I use it on my business card. This is a case of a really skinny small drop on the bottom and a big drop above. It almost creates a bubble.”
The drop Waugh calls “Juggler” was another happy accident. “Juggler is another complete mistake but kind of a neat picture,” he says. “This is a blue drop initially, and then a red drop was supposed to land on top of it. What happened was the red drop hit the side of my equipment and got ripped apart on the way down. So, that drop is trying to recover from being smacked with a hammer.”
Top: “Copper Cream #3.” The warmth of coffee and cream
complement the smooth surfaces. Bottom: “Big Hat, Little
Head.” The detail of the currents of red in the stem of this shape
provide an added dimension.
Waugh imbues his drop called “Shirley Temple” with a fascinating backstory. “Shirley Temple is also one of my favorites,” he says. “It’s clear water with one red cherry sitting in it. It’s just the beginning of the collision, so I know this is like the birth of a big explosion ready to happen. It has a little more life and character, as if it had an interesting childhood that would bring it to being slightly crooked. I also love its reflections. This is why I shoot a lot of drops in portrait format. Often, the reflection is at least as interesting as the main subject. The reflection reveals stuff you can’t see.”
To sell his work, Waugh uses a combination of galleries and the Internet. “I’ve had a few shows around town, where my work will be in a gallery for a month or two,” he says. “Most of my sales, however, have been off the Internet. I just got an agent recently to help me get into new markets. I think my drops can fit into both corporate and fine art. The stock photography market is sort of tempting, because people like drops, but because most of my drops are not all that recognizable as drops, I can’t see a faucet company wanting to use them in their advertising.”
One facet of the marketing process with which Waugh has been wrestling, is deciding upon the monetary value of his work. “An 8x10 print currently goes for something like $85.” he says. “A 32x40-inch print now sells for about $400, but I think these prices will be going up to reflect the time I put into getting these images.”
Recently, Waugh discovered the marketing potential of strong Internet exposure. “I’ve had my website for nearly three years,” he says. “The traffic level had been about 30 visits a day; then I got listed on two weblogs about eight weeks ago. Suddenly, the number of visits jumped to 3000 the next day. The day after that, I got 20,000 visits. In the past two months I’ve had half a million people visit my site. The first weblog to pick me up was www.growabrain.net. The second, and larger weblog was www.boingboing.net. There’s a site out there that measures what links are the most popular on weblogs, and for a couple of days I was number one.” To see more of Martin Waugh’s images on the site Yahoo named “One of the 24 Best Websites on the Internet,” visit www.liquid
Larry Singer is a writer and photographer for the Daily Journal and Daily Messenger newspapers in Seneca, South Carolina. Some of his award-winning images can be seen at homepage.mac.com/larry
singer. His work can also be seen at www.dailyjm.com.