Graham Saxby

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Interviewed by
Sean Johnston
University of Glasgow, Crichton Campus, United Kingdom
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Interview of Graham Saxby by Sean Johnston on 2002 September 16, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA,

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Interview discusses Graham Saxby's career and experiences in holography, including:  his years in the Royal Air Force; his introduction to holography through optics and photography; the Lake Forest International Symposium of Display Holography; his interactions with Russian holographers; the relationships between photography and holography; the future of holography; and his work with Emmett Leith.


Never met Gabor, but did meet most of the others.

He was a trained photographer in the RAF; joined in the ranks as an AC2, served 18-19 years ended up as a chief technician (same rank as a flight sergeant). He had a degree already (1945, in Physics and Maths) and got a commission to the Education branch; was posted to Costa (?) the RAF school of photography, after a year's sabbatical in getting a post-graduate certificate of education from Bolton College of Further Education.

Got into holography after he left the RAF. He was teaching photographic science to trainee photographers in his last years in the RAF. (Aerial photographers look after automatic aerial cameras; but ground photographers do photography from the air, when necessary). He taught optics, photography and electronics, and was responsible for exams.

To teach interference and diffraction, he borrowed a laser from Oxford University. This was about 1968-1970, before lasers were off-the-shelf commonly available. This home-made HeNe laser was used to show large interference fringes on the screen. Started with a Tesla coil, and power supply. required two people to lift.

Went on a refresher course where he met a 'slightly batty Yugoslavian professor, Yuri Bonakovitch (?), in Engineering Dept. of Keele, a microwave specialist. Taught Saxby Maxwell's Equations in one day ('left a bit battered'). On the last night, about half-past 11 at night, "I said to him, I've never made a hologram, and he said — Oh! I've got a hologram table, we're going to make a hologram now!"). Done at the Engineering Bldg at Parks Rd in Oxford: 6 stories, plus basement. Has 'paternosters' — continuous lifts — jump in as it keeps going. His lab was on the top floor, and the processing room was in the basement. So each exposure required them to go down and up 7 floors. "To say there was an image is a bit of an exaggeration, but... it was there". Object was a pocket knife — the only shiny thing they could find.

His 1945 degree preceded transistors, so he decided to take an Open University degree, which included a course on 'Images and Information', on Modern Optics. He did this course, much of which was familiar, and was interested in the way it was taught. One of the projects was to make a hologram on 35 mm film. KEITH HODGKINSON, who had organized the course, had built a microlab, about 6" x 2", to which a cheap camera back-end was screwed. A laser, part of the course equipment, was put nose-first into a concave lens to spread the beam, and made a hologram of a microscopic chess set. It wasn't on-axis; the beam splitter was a microscope cover glass; one beam went straight through, the other was reflected at about a 45 deg angle. It was Agfa 10E75 film in 35 mm format.

After leaving the RAF, he put in for an editorship with Focal Press, largely to see how he 'measured up' in civilian life. He was interviewed and asked to work from home; they rejected this, but said that he could write for them. He was asked to do one of their series — a Focal Guide to Slides. After that, he was asked to do one on holograms. He claimed that he did know about holograms. This was late 1970s. Book came out in 1980, but this was not a Focal Guide - it did not fit in the series, so it was written as a separate project.

He was quite fortunate, because he had joined the Wolverhampton Teacher's College, training teachers for Further Education - nursing, engineering, agriculture and so on — and he had been head-hunted to look after their Educational Technology unit - photographic, sound recording, things he had specialized in. When he joined Wolverhampton Polytechnic, which eventually became Wolverhampton University, we moved to a different building, had more library liaison and they 'turned themselves into packages' and was left without a job — joined the physics dept.., and the chap he worked with (BOB MOONEY) was his former tutor in the optics course, which was 'rather nice' because his PhD wasn't in optics at all, and he had barely kept ahead of the students. They devised a modem optics module, and had them make holograms as one of the experiments. Through the summer term, he and a technician built a sandbox with 2 tons of sand — built on the floorboards 2m x 1.5 m and 1 m deep on a Dexion frame with an enormous blackboard base and 6 inner tubes from scooters.

16:00 minutes

Ran the course for 8 yrs until he formally retired. In the meantime, he had sympathetic ears from physics and arts dept. to build a proper holographic lab — with a big table and three or four lasers of different powers, and got the ear of reps of Prentice Hall who commissioned him to do a big text book - Manual of Practical Holography. It sold well, because no one had done a decent book before. There was quite a good one by CHRIS OUTW ATER, and rather a better one by FRED UNTERSEHER, which was 'a bit jokey', and the diagrams are a bit poor, and he is himself dyslexic so he couldn't write it himself. But a brilliant talker and speaker, and creative artist. Met him for the first time on the day that Princess Margaret opened the first big exhibition of holograms at the RPS — he was invited along to that. They sat next to each other and eyed each other suspiciously.

MIKE WENYON wrote a book called Understanding Holography, which was going to be the Focal Guide to Holography, but he realized half-way through that it was about physics, not practical holography. Focal Press didn't tell Saxby this when they commissioned him, and they were desperately looking for someone to take up the dangling project.

The Manual of Practical Holography was autographed for EMMETT LEITH — 'I felt a little bit curious about that'. His first book, Holograms for Focal Press, sold 2000 runs in the first run, then translated into French by Masson; he got a few royalties, but most of the French holographers had had copies of the English book, although it was slightly updated.

Saxby had been working at what is now Nottingham Trent Univ with PASCAL GAUTHIER, now with the Paris Museum of Holography, more or less running it. He did the first translation, but Masson were not happy with it and someone else did a revised translation.

Practical Holography first run was 1500, and sold out; 2nd run was revised. Publishers went through sackings and mergers; taken over by several people in succession, ending up with Pearsons Educational. They didn't think it fit in well with their lists.

Then he was approached by 10P, and Nikki Dennis, a new editor. They planned a Physics Of... series, and wanted a Physics of Photography book. He didn't really want it called that — photography is one third physics, one-third chemistry and one-third craft. He persuaded Nikki to change it, to create a Science of Imaging text.

25:00 minutes (discussion of the Science of Imaging book)

Was hoping the 3rd 10P edition of the Practical Holography book to be completed before Christmas, but he was delayed by this other book, published Dec 2001. Diagrams are largely unchanged; the major changes are holography in industry and science, i.e. applications. 'It's not really forward looking; so many papers seem to be about the same thing; at the moment it's about photo-refractive crystals and data storage; there must be hundreds of PhDs being generated just over photo-refractive crystals', but' at the moment it's not really going anywhere, it's just science... of course it has potential, just like quantum computers, but storing things in the form of single molecules, if not entirely far-fetched, is a bit difficult'.

'All of the research work I did was to make holography simpler, to take holography out of the research lab and into the kitchen'.

He went to 3 of Tung Jeong's conferences `and met, quite literally, everyone who mattered.’ When the 2nd edition of his book came out, he autographed 75 copies of his book in one day, included LEITH and DENISYUK. The first time he went to America he spent a second week in New York mostly at the Museum of Holography, which had its own lab. A big center of teaching; the NY School of Holography was run by SAM MOREY, who with DAN SCHWEITZER (who died recently) — SAM gave an appreciation of DAN at the RPS conference this year. He met Ruben NUNEZ there as well met practically everyone in the first 2 weeks, then 3 years later, and again 3 yrs after that.

There is a big enclave of holographers in NY, and some in San Francisco, and more in Chicago too (sounds like he has had patchy exposure to all this). The Chicago Museum of Holography is only partly about holography, but there is a SCHOOL of holography there.

STEVE BENTON bid for the NYMOH collection, and 'all the others who wanted to bid for it held off — perhaps 10 people wanted to bid for it, such as perhaps big collectors such as MATTHIAS LAUK and MARIE-ANDREE COSSETTE, and ANNE-MARIE CRYSTAKIS at the Paris Museum of Holography. They got together with Steve Benton and agreed not to bid so that the collection was kept together.

(Saxby can't get around now — his wife is several years older than he is, and the last time they were away someone got into the house and stole the hi-fi equipment).

What were the symposia like? Not a typical conference — parties on the beach — went swimming in Lake Michigan with Nils Abramson every morning.

Brought together more artists than scientists, really. The scientists nearly all went to the SPIE conferences. There has always been this division — arts holographers have largely come from the fine arts — sculptors, painters, and some — like DIETER JUNG — write poetry. The number of scientists who have gone in for creative holography is quite small. One of the things about the Lake Forest conferences is that the papers were not refereed — just the abstracts in advance. The less interesting ones were diverted to poster sessions. Perhaps 150 papers offered, and only room for 60-70 to be delivered.

Soviet Russian holographers? Saxby hadn't seen many — saw quite a bit of Ukrainian VLADIMIR MARKOV, and YURI DENISYUK, from St Petersburg. Met others, but didn't get to know any of them.

MARKOV is working in the USA now; may be able to find his address. Resume of Russian work: Once Denisyuk's work had been recognized, they felt it was important to do holograms of all their art objects. The Soviet Union was a big place, and the Ukraine had a checkered history — farmers plowing fields left a trail of things turned up, and appearing in little villages. All went to the central museums, the Hermitage, etc. If they made a valuable find, it couldn't really stay in the village. So they put them in the central museums and made holograms to travel around in exhibitions. The quality was so good that when they came to show them at the Science Museum or V &A, he recalls one woman saying "what's all this about holograms?... of course you can't see them if you turn the light out!" and wouldn't believe they weren't real.

The Soviet materials had a constant microcrystal size of better than 20 nm mean diameter, whereas ours were 40-50 nm, with what NICK PHILLIPS described as 'rocks' in the middle. In order to make an emulsion sensitive, it must be 'ripened' by cooking it at a certain temperature and humidity for a while, and like soap bubbles coalescing, crystals grow bigger at the expense of smaller ones, feeding on them. The 'rocks' produce a lot of milkiness, haze. The Soviet emulsions didn't have that but 'they were appalling slow, with exposures sometimes of hours. They were mostly using HeNe lasers, and they didn't have Argon lasers for a very long time. Eventually they started making better lasers, and Argon and XENON lasers, with apparently 5 wavelengths simultaneously and made full-colored holograms. Problem: these 3 lots of interference layers can cause inter-wavelength interference, causing a moiré-like effect, and diffraction efficiency falls as the square of the number of wavelengths. They did not go on very much with that, because most of the stuff they were showing were stone or terracotta or similar, and they developed the color with sulfite additive to developer to shift the peak wavelength of reconstruction.

RPS and the holography group: Started via Saxby. Arose after the big exhibition of holograms by RPS in 1982 or 1983. Saxby was the only holographer in the RPS at the time, and certainly the only one in the BIPP. It was partly his idea to start an exhibition, but the RPS exhibition committee had already thought of it. NICK PHILLIPS had put on 2 exhibitions, one at the Royal Academy. 'We didn't have good enough tables to do reflection holograms - he had made some enormous transmission holograms, and obtained enormous lasers donated by the rock group The Who. They had decided that lasers were 'last year's thing' and were afraid of falling afoul of the lab for safety. Phillips lab was at Loughborough University. The first exhibition took London by storm. The 2nd one was in 3 rooms at the Royal Academy — sometime in the 1970s. They were mostly Phillips' holograms, and perhaps a few loaned by BENTON and BENYON, etc. He recalls large meter-square holograms of Nick Phillips. E.g. an apple half-way along a pipe, a meter long in each direction.

As a result of that, the RPS got interested. They commissioned EVE RITSCHER, who had organized exhibitions and laser displays for the stage, to do the whole thing, and AGFA put up the money. They're representative was DUNCAN CROUCHER at their London offices.

EVE commissioned works from every holographer with their name in the directory. Saxby wrote an article a few months back in the RPS journal recalling the 20th anniversary of it. He also has contemporary photos and articles about the exhibition at the time.

They were nearly all reflection and white-light transmission (rainbow) holograms, and a lot of abstract stuff, too — and combinations with sculpture and painting. RPS was trying to promote the artistic side of the medium. 'It was, without a doubt, the best attended exhibition they ever had'. It was so popular, that, when the time came to close it down, it was moved bodily to the Science Museum, where it stayed for a month. By that time it was getting dilapidated, and some holograms got nicked.

But as a result of that, several holographic galleries started up — in Covent Garden, eventually moved to the Trocadero, where it got bigger.

Some of the holograms went from Bath to the Trocadero, but others were commissioned by PETER WOODD, who built his own lab and got artists to work in it. Another fellow who worked in Nick's Loughborough Univ lab also contributed. Someone else started galleries in Oxford, and in Bristol. All were spin-offs. There was a big public interest in creative holography at that side. A lot of them went into souvenir shops, and there were temporary displays in Claridge's, etc. It has declined mainly because Agfa suddenly shut down their production line, and it wasn't possible to get any material for a long time. Agfa had been threatening to shut down their production for a long time, and there was grumbling that quality wasn't consistent. Duncan explained to me that it was such a very small thing that the coating lanes were huge, and you 'pushed a button and a hectare of the stuff came out, and that was just a test!'. There were enormous areas of film. A year's supply of holography film was just a test run for normal customers, and the machines couldn't even settle down in that time. Once stabilized, you wasted perhaps half a mile of film. If a holographer was trying to make his living from holography, as MARGARET [BENYON] was, you had to count your pennies, even though Agfa charged about the same price as for their colour film.

Agfa sponsored the exhibition, but didn't pay for the lot. Eve's assistants had to be paid well for their expertise. Not many lasers were used, owing to the white-light prevalence.

Not many photographers became holographers. Why? 'I don't know'. 'I think... It's just that holography had two reputations: one, that it was a rather sleazy thing, that belonged on bumper stickers and souvenir shops, and the other, was that it was a very difficult thing that you needed a PhD in both physics and maths before you could even tackle it, and a bottomless pocket for buying the equipment, in addition to which it was dangerous... I mean none of those things is true - you can build an amateur holographic lab for as much as it takes to build an amateur photo lab. A laser — even before we had semiconductor lasers — cost no more than a decent camera, and the spatial filter, no more than a decent lens, and the processing equipment the same as photography; the table you could build yourself — if you could lay a footpath you could cast a concrete table. In fact people made them from all sorts of things. I had one friend who went into it professionally and he built his table from old railway sleepers and he filled up the space with jerry-cans filled with water.'

So the RPS started a Holography group soon after the exhibition. There were quite a few private and semi-private exhibitions, and Saxby wrote 6 articles for the British Journal of Photography, and he got a technical writer's award for them [articles loaned to SJ].

This triggered interest in the RPS. They had a stand in the Ideal Homes Exhibition perhaps c 1990? Soon after the group was set up they had a members' exhibition, and put up 3 annual exhibitions. They used a spare room that had formerly been used by Leitz. They used it for a permanent exhibit of holograms. BOB GIBSON and MOLLY GIBSON set up the room, and they 'squeezed a little money out of them' to set up a permanent exhibition. It was taken down just a few weeks ago.

Saxby has spoken to Amanda at the Bradford National Museum of Photography to set up a small permanent exhibition. The Science Museum is 'poor stuff — covered in dust — appalling really'. He and Martin Richardson spent the whole afternoon with the curator of photography, trying to convince him that the current display did them no favors.

Hasn't been anywhere to see holograms for 10 yrs now. And fewer holidays abroad these days.

First heard of holography? In Practical Mechanics, which folded in 1956 (?) Seemed confused about this. Can't recall when he first saw a hologram. The first decent one was a specimen with the Images and Information course at the OU — a stopwatch behind a magnifying glass. The last year that Saxby was at the University, Saxby was contracted by Hodgkinson to make more, but based on the same measurements so that the text didn't change.

Had to retire from Wolverhampton Poly at 65. But they put him up to the board for an honorary research fellowship for 3 years — no salary. They turned a blind eye to his taking on private students - trained quite a few. Got bands of engineers and 6th formers for the day, for demonstrations etc. Ran two one-day symposia, too. One for engineers; one for artists/craftspeople. For engineers, 7 people turned up. For arts and crafts, 87 turned up. A series of lectures, not workshops.

At RPS, ran workshops for a dozen at a time. 4 members of the Holography Group teach on this. Bob Gibson has lighting and scaffolding; Jeff Blyth teaches them how to make holograms; Graham has a display board with holograms.

Graham had to leave the Poly when it became a university and it took on satellite colleges. They were going to throw the equipment in a skip - worth perhaps £25,000 — and he offered them considerably less. Stored in farmer's bam, and tried to find a place for a lab, but up against health and safety problems there, too. So he sold if off to friends and new holographers. He made a slight profit. Laser went to a place in Islington, in an old church, to two people with an arts centre doing holography. Has display holography advanced since then? No — "it hadn't really very far to go." Just simple improvements - vast improvements in emulsions. Jeff Blyth, one of the first commercial holographers, a real string and sealing wax chap - found a way of making an emulsion in a kitchen. And it works — good stuff. Quite a few other things like that. The main thing that's gone forward is holographic stereograms. Since personal computers became widespread, places have sprung up to build apparatus for making stereograms under PC control, particularly Rob Munday, who set up a studio in Surrey near Adlestone.

What does the future hold? "I don't really know. At the moment it's been going down, quite a bit, partly because of the gap in the material supply, and the material has become much more expensive. But I think hobby holography is going to take off, because you can buy a semiconductor laser for £5, and I bought one for £2 on holiday." Using a proper Michelson interferometer, it had about 4 cm coherence length, but for holograms it was less than 1 mm, owing to mode-hopping. OK for a fraction of a second, but too weak for that - no more than about 3 mW. But if you operate it off a cycle battery and 20 mins to heat up, it would stay stable long enough to make a Denisyuk hologram of a stable object.

RPS Saxby annual medal: Tung Jeong has got one, Steve Benton, David Birder (?) working in holographic stereograms and Nick Phillips in 2002.

RPS could invite me to the annual awards. Head office is 01225-462841. Awards are on Oct 10 2002 in London.

Discussion of writing styles

Other contacts? Margaret Benyon, in Poole; Andy Pepper in Nottingham; and John Gates, in his mid-80s. Worked at NPL; remembers all the old people, and has sent Graham a number of old documents that Graham could dig out for me. He comes to most of the RPS meetings and maintains his interest. When Hans was made a professor he came to the investiture. Gates lived in Farnham but moved to Bista? Will provide the address. Gates knew GABOR. Mike Wenyon knew Gabor, when he was going for his MSc at Imperial. Chris Dainty might know him (at Imperial) — head of Optics and Metrology there.

"There was a lot of back-biting and nastiness about Gabor getting the Nobel prize. A lot of these old people are a little bit reluctant to say much about Gabor... it was pointed out at the time that Gabor had got a number of things seriously wrong... although he had got the maths right... really it's so rigorous I don't see the point of most of it... he had got the technology wrong, and it was Emmett Leith who sorted it out, working with Upatnieks, I think — I've never met Upatnieks... they were working on side-looking radar. This is recorded onto 70 mm film. If you look at the film, you could very often see what looked like a double-slit diffraction pattern appearing on it, and my conjecture is that this is what Leith spotted, and he saw that he was getting an interference effect with the plane appearing in two different positions.

They put 2 and 2 together, and they read Gabor's paper... Leith himself said 'we immediately thought, well, we ought to be able to do this with light... and they tried filtered mercury light, and managed to get dim images of transparencies c1960-61; in 1962, they got their hands on a laser... and made a very successful hologram of a railway engine... Upatnieks was hot on railways... or perhaps someone else in the lab. In fact it was Leith who made the first successful hologram.

At the same time Denisyuk was working simultaneously in St Petersburg... he got hold of some of Lippmann's papers, and Lippmann's photography uses a very similar form of interference, and he got the idea without having seen Gabor's papers or having heard of Gabor... but like Leith he didn't realize it was three-dimensional and until he tried it and saw that it was.

"I think that it was suggested that they should share the Nobel prize with Gabor, but Leith had a particular rival, a chap called George Stroke. Stroke had approached holography from a Fourier Transform point of view, and he had in his own words invented the Fourier Transform hologram (little different from the Fraunhofer hologram that Leith had made... somehow he conceived a dislike for Leith. He was on the advisory panel for the Nobel prize, and got Leith and Denisyuk quashed. Stroke is still alive." "I borrowed a photograph from him, and about three months later he wrote quite a nasty letter to me demanding it back... he seems quite a nasty person".

DENISYUK was given an honorary doctorate by De Montfort a couple of years back.

Discussion of organ in Birmingham