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Portfolio & Interview: Ernie Button's Vanishing Spirits

Glenmorangie 110 -- Ernie Button

We are pleased to debut another selection of images from Ernie Button’s Vanishing Spirits series. Between his Vanishing Spirits and Cerealism portfolios, Button has received a lot of attention on the internet recently, appearing internationally on blogs in such notable places as NPR, Colossal, The Daily Mail, Huffington Post, Boing Boing, Wired and many, many more. Button's colorful images have a wide appeal, but what makes them intriguing is the way they capture the imagination. Looking into the delicate lines and saturated colors, the mind easily wanders to distant planets and alien landscapes. The question immediately arises – what are we looking at? And the answer is equally fascinating: we are gazing into the light, nearly unnoticeable film left in the bottom of a glass of Scotch Whisky. Button's images allow us to see beauty in the world that is so easily overlooked. When what we see in the images merge with the consciousness of what we are actually looking at, we are reminded of how often the very small and very large resemble each other; the magnificence of the universe collapses into itself. We asked Button to tell us a little bit more about the series and his practice as a photographer.

Aberlour A'bunadh 122 -- Ernie Button
photo-eye:     How did the Vanishing Spirits series get started?

Ernie Button:     I feel fortunate that I stumbled onto this phenomenon. I am a fan of observing my world and the things that are happening around me; noticing the smaller details that may be ignored or overlooked. The idea for this project occurred while putting a used Scotch glass into the dishwasher. I noted a film on the bottom of a glass and when I inspected closer, I noted these fine, lacy lines filling the bottom. What I found through some experimentation is that these patterns and images that you see can be created with the small amount of Single-Malt Scotch left in a glass after most of it has been consumed. The alcohol dries and leaves the sediment in various patterns. It’s a little like snowflakes in that every time the Scotch dries, the glass yields different patterns and results. I have used different color lights to add color to the bottom of the glass, creating the illusion of landscape, terrestrial or extraterrestrial. Some of the images reference the celestial, as if the image was taken of space; something that the Hubble telescope may have taken or an image taken from space looking down on Earth. The circular image references a drinking glass, typically a circle, and what the consumer might see if they were to look at the bottom of the glass after the scotch has dried. A technical note about this project. The ‘Specimen’ images are labeled with the exact years aged of that particular Scotch brand. Otherwise, the images were titled with the specific Scotch brand that the rings were created with but the number is a 3 digit number that has nothing to do with the age of the scotch. Merely a number to help differentiate between images. I have my wife to thank for this project. She came from a Scotch drinking family so I was introduced and came to know Scotch Whisky because of her.

Glenrothes 111 & Glenmorangie Sonnalta 125 -- Ernie Button

pe:     I imagine that the delicate nature of these lines could present some challenges when photographing. What techniques do you use to bring out the details in the glasses? Does this series require a special set up or lighting?

EB:     About a decade ago, I worked on a collaborative project with a painter friend of mine. She had collected agates for years (rocks with inclusions in them like moss, sticks, etc.) and she saw “landscapes” them. We talked and agreed to try a photography project with them where I would take different colored lights and gels to add life to these rocks. When I saw the Scotch phenomenon, I had that knowledge of how I shot the agates which I could easily apply to this project. The challenge became which glass to use and how to get the most out of the bottom of the glass. Each glass has a different interior surface and exterior surface so if there are scratches on the outside of the glass, that will impact the final image. If the interior surface is not level or uneven in any way, that will impact how the images dries. The lines of Scotch are so thin, they have very little depth to them. To get them to really stand out, it requires subtle movements of the lights. I use a significant number of different flashlights and desktop lights to layer multiple colors and strength of light beams onto the surface.

pe:     The Boing Boing article on your work talked a bit about fluid dynamics, specifically about coffee rings. Do you know anything about the science of what's causing whisky to form these lines?

Glengoyne 117 -- Ernie Button
EB:     I find it infinitely fascinating that a seemingly clear liquid could leave a residue &/or pattern with such clarity and rhythm after the liquid is gone. I contacted Dr. Peter Yunker who wrote an article on the Suppression of the Coffee-Ring Effect by Shape-Dependent Capillary Interactions out of sheer curiosity and the desire to seek an understanding of why and how these patterns were being created. After exchanging emails with Dr. Yunker, what he found with the coffee ring effect did not specifically relate to what I was seeing. So off to Google I went and plugged in Art, Fluid Mechanics and Harvard; Dr. Howard A. Stone ended up being the second entry to Google’s search. He is currently the head researcher at Princeton University's Complex Fluids Group. He has been very helpful and gracious enough to entertain my questions. Dr. Stone (along with Dr. Shmuylovich and Dr. Shen) had written a paper entitled Surface Morphology of Drying Latex Films: Multiple Ring Formation that was published in Langmuir 2002. Research has shown that aqueous films tend to form ring-like patterns as they dry. This is because evaporation occurs more quickly at the edges of a liquid, thus drawing particles in the liquid outward. In a recent NPR article about the Vanishing Spirits portfolio stated that "these particles, which give the liquor its flavor and color, are present in 'very, very small quantities and can create an imprint of what the [whisky] was doing when it was trying to evaporate'... Inspired by Button's artwork, Stone is now conducting research with two of his postdocs, Ian Jacobi and Eujin Um, to further investigate the properties of dried whisky residues. In particular, they are looking into why different types of whisky produce subtly different patterns."

pe:     I love that each piece is titled after the whisky that was in the glass. Do different whiskys leave different types of marks? Is there anything you can do to manipulate how the lines will form?

EB:     After experimenting for a while with the rings in the glass, I started to question if there would be a difference in the way a 12 year old Scotch dries compared with a 15, an 18 or a 21 (same brand). (Before readers start panicking about wasted Scotch, it only takes 1 or 2 drops of liquid to coat the bottom of a glass to make these rings. So, it really is a thin residue that is creating these. If a person can still see the amber color of the Scotch in the glass, they’ve left too much.) There may be a difference at the microscopic level but I didn’t notice any significant difference in younger vs. older whisky. Which was disappointing because I was really hoping that there would be a noticeable difference when compared side-by-side. The rings occur with whiskies other than Scotch as well e.g. Jack Daniels. However I recently picked up a small sample size bottle of the new Jim Beam Ghost Whiskey which is a white / clear whiskey and it did not produce the same ring pattern. So the rings may have something to do with the aging process and what is soaked up through the casks. I had a Cognac maker contact me wanting me to make these images from his Cognac and unfortunately it did not work which may be that Cognac is a grape-based product. I can’t manipulate the lines but I do manipulate the shape of the sample by moving the glass, using different glasses that have different curved surfaces, etc.

Ardbeg 124 & Glenfiddich 125 -- Ernie Button

pe:     You have two series on the Photographer's Showcase, both of which transform something small and ordinary, something often overlooked or taken for granted, into magnificent scenes. You seem to have a wonderful attention to detail -- does photography change the way you see ordinary life?

EB:     It does keep me constantly wondering and considering if what I’m looking at would make a good image or an interesting project. When photography became something that I did on a consistent basis, it helped my put a frame around things that I saw, ideas that I had pondered before I found photography. It allowed me to put my thoughts and vision into a tangible form instead of just something that I observed that was interesting. I find myself often looking at objects for the best angle, the best lighting, interesting shapes, etc.

pe:     Looking at the full scope of your work on your website shows that you are equally comfortable photographing while traveling and making photos in the controlled environment of the studio. Can you talk about these two very different sides of your photographic practice? Do you have a preference and are the two linked?

Dalwhinnie 125 -- Ernie Button
EB:     To answer the second question first, I don’t have a preference. I get just as much enjoyment setting up a pyramid of Cheerios or fiddling with the lighting set-up to get just the right glow on a Scotch ring as I do walking around a new city snapping images with my Holga. I’ve taken pictures and been interested in photography since my teenage years. But until my wife went to grad school to get her MFA in fine art painting, I really didn’t know that there was this whole world devoted to the making and creation as well as exhibition of art. The art world fascinated me and I wanted to be a part of it, even in a very small way. I took some classes at a local community college to give me a foundation in the basics of photography. After that, I was off and running. In general, I shoot a lot of photographs and tend to bounce between projects. If I feel I’ve reached a point of stagnation in a project, I will work on something else to get a fresh perspective. With the Cerealism project, I took a 4 year break to work on other projects and came back to it in 2012. With Vanishing Spirits, the first image I successfully made was around 2007.

Travel and studio photography are obviously different subject matters but the thought process for me is roughly the same. When I was a youngster, I spent a lot of time working on jigsaw puzzles. The concentration, the thought organization, the shape / visual problem solving; it all worked for me. So being able to work in a studio with a diorama set-up that has challenges or problems to overcome is comfortable for me as an adult. In looking at a lot of my travel images, many of them are very much still-life images as if I created them in studio, just at human scale. If I had the time and the means to create scale models, the travel images I take would very likely be the dioramas I create. The beautiful thing about photographing when I travel is that it gets me out of the studio, out of a comfort zone and pushes me to try images I would not normally try. For instance, I don’t take very many images of people. Many of my travel images reference people but don’t have people in them. But in my many travels to China, it’s hard to avoid taking an image of a person. Most of my images from China have done a good job of eliminating people from the final image (no photoshop, just lots of waiting for the right moment). However with the sheer number of people in China, I began to experiment with the use of people in my images in an effort to enhance the image.

The Balvenie 140 -- Ernie Button

View the new images from Button's Vanishing Spirits series
Button's previous work on the Photographer's Showcase can be seen here

For more information on Button's work, please contact photo-eye Gallery Associate Director Anne Kelly by email or by calling the gallery at (505) 988-5152 x202

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