Bending Light & Color With Alan Jaras

Alan Jaras is an artist/scientist who since his retirement as a industrial research scientist and microscopist has focused his energy on bridging art and science together with his research “to gain a deeper understanding of how these patterns form and how to make images that hopefully can be considered a form of art.” Using only film, and without a lens on the camera, in what Alan says could still be described as a photogram, he shoots a targeted light source through and a piece of art glass or formed plastic to capture the created refraction patterns. The results, what could be described as “images of strange microscopic or deep sea creatures or even galaxies forming in deep space,” pull at the viewers perception of digital and analog, art and science, all the while expanding our imaginations and understanding of the world around us.

I talked with Alan about his photo process, the inspiration behind it, other beautiful color effects found in nature, and how to start a fire using a flower vase.

Take the time to read through everything Alan has to say and you won’t walk away uninspired, I promise.

COLOURlovers: Hi, how are you today?

Alan Jaras: Today I feel particularly good. I live in the North West of England in the UK and over here we’ve had another wet summer, as we approach the start of autumn today the sun is shining in a clear blue sky, it definitely lifts the spirits.


CL: How do you spend you time?

Alan: I took early retirement from my work as an industrial research scientist and microscopist some years ago intending to spend more time concentrating on photomicrography, macrophotography and photography in general. However, the internet, and Flickr in particular, changed things for me. The worldwide interest in my refraction patterns or “Refractographs” as I call them has set me off in a new direction towards, what looks like, the start of a new career. I work from home and need the dark to photograph the images, so from late September until March when the sun has set and it’s dark enough for me in the evenings I can spend a couple of hours actually taking photographs. Looking directly into the viewfinder at a bright light can be a big strain on the eyes so I limit the length of time. I’ve had over 40 years training peering into microscopes in darkened rooms so I’m quite used to it, but I still want to look after my eyes. During the day I spend a lot of time trying out new ideas, experimenting with plastics, resins, paints, dyes and seeing what sort of new refraction patterns I can create. Like a scientific experiment I keep a careful record of the things I try and all the samples I produce are coded and numbered for future reference. With the interest generated on the internet there is also the need to spend quite a bit of time replying to emails and comments on Flickr.

Looking out of the study window now I can see that after all the rain the lawn grass needs cutting and the weeds are beginning to take over the garden – if the weather stays dry I’ll try to make a start later today. There’s always something waiting to be done.


CL: Can you talk about your photo process.

Alan: I only use film and traditional manual 35mm cameras – I have never used or owned a digital camera (I have nothing against them: just never felt the need for one). For my photography in general I still use cameras from the 1960’s, I don’t have any zoom lenses and I even use a hand held light meter. For my ‘Refractographs’ I don’t even need a lens on the camera, I just use a camera body as a mini darkroom to hold the film while the image is projected directly on to it. The piece of glass, or formed plastic, replaces the camera lens. I think the technique can still be classed as a photogram but whereas the conventional photogram is made in a darkroom as a contact print directly on to photographic paper using an enlarger as the light source, I use a darkened room and a distant point light source and capture the image on to 35mm colour film from which enlargements can be made. After a lot of experimentation on film types I have now settled on using tungsten rated colour slide film (Fujichrome T64). The 64 ISO (ASA) film speed means fine grain size which will give larger enlargements (40″ x 30″ is quite acceptable). For my processing I use a local professional photo lab that specialises in exhibition quality traditional enlarger hand prints, either directly from the colour film using the Cibachrome (now Ilfochrome) process or the film is scanned at high resolution for large digital prints with the associated large file size – a high resolution scan of a 35mm frame can be 250-300MB in size. For web work and evaluation I scan my own images using an Epson Perfection V700 scanner.


CL: What do you use for a light beam?

Alan: I’ve tried numerous light sources. About 40 years ago I had access to a conventional darkroom and used an enlarger and B/W film to make some monochrome negatives of glass refraction patterns for printing

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When I rekindled my interest nearly three years ago I wanted to work in colour so that’s when I started trying it out with a camera body. I first of all used a shaft of sunlight shining through a slit in a window blind


Now, that is a bit too bright for my eyes. I even tried the moon on a cold clear winter’s night but that got a bit too cold and the exposures were too long (both for me and the film) so I tried out one of my high power microscope lamps with a collimated beam of light and an overrun tungsten bulb. This was a 50 year old specialist lamp and the bulbs were difficult to find (the stock I had lasted about a year). I now use a 150W halogen lamp which is bright enough to give me exposures of between 1/2 and 1/125 seconds depending on the object I’m imaging.

CL: Can you tell us about caustics, your research and bridging art and science together.

Alan: Caustics are all around us and are seen especially when a single bright source of light is shining. They occur when the beam hits a curved surface and reflects from it such as the pattern of the ‘caustic curve’ you can see at the bottom of a cup or if the beam is transmitted through a transparent curved surface such as a lens they can be focused to a bright spot – if the lens is turned the shape of the spot extends to a long ‘comet like’ pattern. The word ‘caustic’ means ‘to burn’ and it was from the ability of a curved mirror to focus the suns rays to a bright burning spot that we get the name. The Olympic Torch is still lit by this method. Caustic patterns are seen dancing on the bottom of a swimming pool in sunlight, reflected under a bridge from the ripples on the surface of water and probably everybody has seen the patterns when sunlight shines through a glass vase or a glass of wine. It is similar patterns that I try to capture in fine detail on film by working with glass, plastics and other refractive media.


For over 30 years my wife and I have been collecting hand made studio (art) glass. After such a long time we have built up quite a collection with much of it out on display. It’s fascinating to watch how the colours change with different lighting conditions and especially when sunlight shines on them. You have to be careful though, large spherical flower vases filled with water like goldfish bowls have been know to start household fires and burn scorch lines on window curtains. Anyhow, many of the pieces we have show lovely detailed patterns of quite complex shape, colour and intricate detail when lit by sunlight, the finest detail focusing just an inch or so behind. It gets quite difficult trying to hold a large piece of art glass in the dark in one hand while trying to see the image in the viewfinder, compose the picture and then wind on the film for the next exposure, it does help to have a sturdy tripod and a monopod in front with a frame to hold the glassware. The patterns with glass are susceptible to the slightest movement so each exposure produces a different image. To start with, I would take three or four exposures and make careful notes and details of the brightness of the lamp with my light meter. Nowadays, with experience, I usually only need one or two exposures as I can judge the brightness of the image quite well through the viewfinder. The ‘Bending Light‘ set on Flickr show the sequence of images from my early attempts to the latest works. Many of the early works have been scanned from prints using an old flat bed scanner and viewed on an old monitor. Now that I want to achieve much higher quality I’ve upgraded the computer, monitor and scanner and I am now able reproduce the image as I see it on the original film when viewed on a colour corrected light box. This brings me to another point – how to reproduce the image as a viewable print suitable for display and show the quality of image that I see from the film on the light box.


Transparency film has a special quality, the image is viewed by passing light through the film rather like the way the image was produced in the first place by passing light through the glass. The ‘caustics’ are three dimensional, some are focussed on the film plane, some just in front others behind, also because of the refractive index properties of the material different colours are focussed at different positions too. When viewed on the light box the colours of the patterns appear at different levels ‘floating’ above the film in a wonderful 3D effect, some more that others depending on the colour. The background is dense black – so much so that the film lab technicians can’t see where to cut the film, there being no distinction between one frame and the next – normally films show a black band between exposures but if the background is a perfect black then its hard to tell. So instead of the film coming back in cut strips I get it in an uncut roll and its left for me to decide where to make the cuts.


With a print you view the image with reflected light and these blacks are difficult to achieve. Cibachrome prints have a high gloss surface and a good deep black which gives depth to the image and brings out a lot of the 3D effect I see on the slide film. With a digital print from a scanned image again a high gloss paper is best but the blacks may not be quite as deep as the Cibachrome. The next problem with a high gloss print is firstly mounting and then preserving the surface finish from fingerprints and handling scratches. The prints have to be mounted on a smooth mount such as plastic or polished metal, traditional card mounts have a surface texture which shows through when high gloss prints are pressure mounted on it. I have been looking at ‘face mounting’ behind clear acrylic (Plexiglass) sheet. The back of the print is first bonded on to a polished aluminium sheet and then the front or ‘face’ of print is ‘glued’ under pressure with a clear silicone resin to a front sheet of clear acrylic. This is similar to the way a thin section of a sample is prepared for microscopy – the section is placed on a glass microscope slide then a clear refractive index liquid forms a thin transparent interface with the top cover glass. It’s like looking at the fish in the sea through a glass bottomed boat – surface scattering is reduced and the colours enhanced. I think at the moment this is the best way for mounting my prints to get the full effect of the image and the 3D effect. Another technique I will probably try is to have large transparencies made for viewing on a wall mounted light box or deep black frames with anti-reflection coated glass.

Getting back to caustics; I soon went through my collection of glass finding about 1 in 20 pieces suitable. I then thought of trying to form my own refractive surfaces out of transparent plastic materials, rather than relying on ‘as found’ patterns I hoped to be able to explore the way the patterns were formed and create new patterns to order – well that was the hope. I’ve spent about two years experimenting, at the moment I’m not going to reveal the technical details and methods I use but I’m now well on the way to better control. These patterns are much more ‘organic’ in shape, I can add coloured dyes or chemicals which interact with the curing and setting process and distort the surface texture which again generates delicate refraction patterns. 509282387_019780a25b.jpg The ‘Twisting Light‘ set was the result of this method of preparation. More complex patterns can be made by passing the light beam first through one of the glass pieces and its refraction pattern then passed through one of the plastic forms – a double refraction or recursive pattern.

The next stage was trying to control where the patterns occur on the image and to try and make small scenes out of these patterns. This is my ‘Taming Light‘ set . Here I place small shapes of plastic and maybe other materials in a small area the size of a 35mm film frame, they may be coloured and then laminated up or fused – the effects of the ‘inclusions’ modify the refraction patterns locally and generate specific patterns where I want them to appear. This is one of the early examples I particularly like, I may go back and explore this effect in a little more detail –


This is another type of pattern I’ve recently been working on:


It’s really one long series of scientific experiments and exploration, trying to gain a deeper understanding of how these patterns form and how to make images that hopefully can be considered as a form of art – aesthetically pleasing, a talking point, and generating images and possibly feelings within the viewer’s mind and imagination. The dancing patterns that the early cave dwellers saw on the cave walls made by the flickering flames from their fires and reflected from the pools of water must have filled them with awe and wonder and possibly fear. Without the millennia of knowledge behind them that we now have, who knows what they thought they were – spirits, sprites, magic?

CL: Why did you start taking photos like this?

Alan: First of all it was a technical challenge – looking for a way of recording something that I personally found amazing and then wanting to share it with others, hopefully arousing an interest and curiosity in the optical world that’s surrounds us all.


CL: What do you try and communicate through your work?

Alan: I leave a lot to the viewers’ imaginations. I can direct somewhat their thoughts by the titles I give the works but through the experience and feedback I have had on my Flickr images I find that most people have different interpretations of what they see in the images. There is no scale, no reference point so they could equally be images of strange microscopic or deep sea creatures or even galaxies forming in deep space. Many, especially the patterns made from plastics, do resemble the shapes of underwater creatures because the same forces and properties which shape the plastics also help generate the forms of the sea creatures,such as surface tension, density, viscosity, flow etc.


I’d like the viewer to experience some of the wonder and fascination for these patterns and other optical effects that I myself have. I’ve always been fascinated at seeing optical effects for the first time. Like a child with a kaleidoscope, the first look at pond life under a microscope or viewing the moon through a telescope. There are many other beautiful colour effects in nature – iridescence, dichroism, the sparkle of light by mineral crystals, interference colours, the shimmer and flash of opals, rainbows and other optical weather effects, backlit dew on a spiders web; I’d like people to generally have a sense of scientific curiosity and discovery that comes from looking at things in a little more detail. The fact that you know how an optical effect is formed doesn’t detract from it’s visual impact – I still look at rainbows or can marvel at the iridescent colours on a beetle’s back. I’d like more people to experience the wonders of science and nature and use their eyes more to observe the world in a little more detail.


CL: What’s the most colorful place you’ve ever been figuratively and/or literally?

Alan: I think it’s the ‘world’ of the polarising microscope and particularly the colours formed by birefringent crystals. I’ve always admired the work of the British photomicrographer Spike Walker this was the sort of work I was planning doing before I got sidetracked. The colours of the crystals change as the microscope slide is rotated – again the colours give scientific information about the optical properties of the chemical crystals and can often be used to identify the material without the need for complex computer driven analytical machines. I think his images are another example of the bridge between science and art.


Another colourful place which sometimes I can find quite visually overpowering (even with my experienced background) is a large retail store or a supermarket. The clamour of colours all fighting for recognition and visually shouting “buy me” can cause overloading of the optic nerve perhaps it’s because I have no control over the patterns or imagery that my eyes try to take in or it may be the effect of all those fluorescent lights. Whatever the cause the effect is almost trance making perhaps that’s the effect the store designers and packaging designers want to engender – it just makes me want to get out as quickly as possible.

CL: What are your plans for the future?

Alan: Over the last few months I’ve been creating new works ready to photograph – I’ll be starting that in a couple of weeks time.

The Agitatto Gallery in Geneva is the first gallery to have selected some of my works for inclusion in their gallery catalogue. I hope this venture is a success and will lead to other gallery representation. I would also like to build up a body of mounted work large and exciting enough to lead to an exhibition offer.


I intend to continue to explore the effects of colour combinations and how these give 3D effects in a final print. I’ve still a lot of ideas to try out, there’s the whole area of caustics from a combination of transparent solids and liquids still there waiting to be discovered and revealed.

I mentioned earlier that the refraction patterns were very susceptible to slight changes and movement of the object – that’s another fast moving visual feast. I’ve started thinking about video techniques … but that’s another story.







Author: evad
David Sommers has been loving color as COLOURlovers' Blog Editor-in-Chief for the past two years. When he's not neck deep in a rainbow he's loving other things with The Post Family (, a Chicago-based art blog, artist collective & gallery.