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Portfolio & Interview: The Science Behind Ernie Button's Vanishing Spirits


photo-eye Gallery Portfolio & Interview: The Science Behind Ernie Button's Vanishing Spirits Photographer’s Showcase artist Ernie Button and his Vanishing Spirits series are in the news — again, and this time science has a response to his observations. In celebration of the research publication, photo-eye is pleased to publish 15 brand new images from the Vanishing Spirits portfolio. In light of Dr. Stone's findings we reached out to Ernie Button for his feelings on the research, its publicity, and of course, making pictures.
Ernie Button – Glenlivet 232

Photographer’s Showcase artist Ernie Button and his Vanishing Spirits series are in the news — again, and this time science has a response to his observations. Recently, venerable publications such as The New York Times, Scientific American, and The Smithsonian all featured Button’s colorful photographs of whiskey remains along side the research of Dr. Howard A. Stone, Chair of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering program at Princeton University. Stone, along with his associate Dr. Hyoungsoo Kim, found that the delicately striated plumes in Button’s images are the effect of disparately evaporating water and ethyl alcohol bound to a framework built by a “yet unidentified” polymer — somehow entering the whiskey during the aging process. Follow the source links above of the full story behind whisky’s curious fluid dynamics, and if you are unfamiliar with Vanishing Spirits read photo-eye's 2013 interview with Ernie Button about the project. In celebration of the research publication, photo-eye is pleased to publish 15 brand new images from the Vanishing Spirits portfolio. In light of Dr. Stone's findings we reached out to Ernie Button for his feelings on the research, its publicity, and of course, making pictures.

Ernie Button – Bowmore 135

photo-eye:     As to the recent published scientific research surrounding Vanishing Spirits, you'd mentioned pursuing the matter yourself by contacting scientists directly. What was it you'd hoped to learn? 

Ernie Button:     I have always been a curious person. But the main focus of this project for me has always been the art and the documenting of these unusual patterns that whisky creates. The ‘why’ the rings are being created helps to make the experience of making art more multi-dimensional for me, utilizing equal amounts of head and heart. Maybe it takes away a little bit of the mystery of their creation but knowing how they are created doesn’t take away their magic or beauty.

Before I contacted anyone in the scientific community, I did a little analysis of my own. 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). 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 any aged whisk(e)y. So whiskies other than Scotch like Jack Daniels will produce this phenomenon. However, over a year ago, I picked up a small sample size bottle of the 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.

Ernie Button – Lagavulin 170

pe:     This is not the first time your work has been published nationally. Last year NPR and Colossal, among others, featured your photographs. How does this recent coverage different for you, and what has the response been like?

EB:     It was more intense both in volume of emails and requests for information about the project or print information. It was a little bit of an overwhelming experience; it’s hard to prepare for a deluge of requests for a myriad of things in such a short period of time. However, in the end, it’s all good. I love the photography that I create and it seems like it is reaching people and they are reacting in a positive way.

pe:     What's next for Vanishing Spirits? Is there anything in particular you are looking for as the project evolves?

EB:     I am really open to experimentation and seeing where the project takes me. I’ve taken a little bit of a break from image creation to focus on the business side of art. But in the new year, I’d like to experiment with different drying surfaces to see if that will change the shape of the dried lines / rings.

Ernie Button – Ardbeg 113

pe:     Many of your images, including the Cerealism series, use commodities to express notions of wonder, exploration, and investigation – often with humorous and fantastical consequences. What's your relationship to these everyday objects?

EB:     I see a lot of beauty in the everyday, the mundane. To me it feels like a more hopeful or optimistic attitude, that there is beauty wherever I am, I just have to be aware and look. I’m not waiting for that big reveal; I don’t have to trek halfway across the world to find it, it can be right where I am. (But of course, it will probably be beautiful half way around the world as well.) It’s kind of a reminder to myself to be hopeful and positive. With a project like Cerealism, what could be more mundane than the food we consume on a daily basis but the project works for me on many levels. It’s fun, entertaining, nostalgic, reminding me of the childhood cereals I used to consume. It also gets into nutrition and the foods we are consuming, the colors of the cereals that change the hue of milk from white to something else.

For more information on Ernie Button and the Vanishing Spirits portfolio contact Gallery Director Anne Kelly at 505-988-5152 ext 121 or anne@photoeye.com

View the portfolios:

Vanishing Spirits I
Vanishing Spirits II
Vanishing Spirits III

Source Links:
Art in a Whiskey Glass, Neatly Explained, Kenneth Chang – The New York Times
Mysteries of Scotch Whisky Rings Solved, Rachel Nuwer – Scientific American
The Physics of Whisky's Aesthetically Pleasing Residue, Helen Thompson – Smithsonian

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