"The Superlative Light: Inside the Texas Petawatt Laser"

Photographer Robert Shults has your "stimulated emission of radiation" right here, pal

From The Superlative Light: Inside the Texas Petawatt Laser
From "The Superlative Light: Inside the Texas Petawatt Laser" (Courtesy of Robert Shults)

In 2009, Austin-based photographer Robert Shults was introduced to the Texas Petawatt Laser facility. This is the laser lab, located in the bowels of the University of Texas, where elite scientists conduct experiments that create the brightest light known to exist in the entire universe. The Petawatt laser can produce, for a fraction of a second, more power than the entire U.S. electrical grid.

Shults was so impressed, he made the facility the subject of his next photodocumentary.

In 2015, here's an exhibition of those Shults photographs at Art.Science.Gallery. in Big Medium's bustling Canopy compound on the Eastside. The show is called "The Superlative Light," which is also the name of the book that Shults has released, a fine volume that contains not only those stark black-and-white images and a scientific essay by Dr. Todd Ditmire (the director of the Petawatt project), but an original science-fiction story, "Laser Shades," by no less a skiffy raconteur than Rudy Rucker.

The exhibition of high-contrast, arrestingly monochrome photography – what you might call technology-porn, some of it – spikes a graphic trail around the white gallery walls but leaves a large rectangle of open space for video projections. The book, elegantly designed by Ursula Damm and published by Daylight Books, was produced with a head-to-tail binding like a much tonier version of one of those old Ace Doubles, and –

Hold on a second. Why black-and-white? Lasers are red, aren't they? Or at least they're some color, depending on what's aiding the light amplification, right? Why in the world would a fellow ...?

"Someone asked that at the artist talk last Saturday," says Art.Science.Gallery.'s Hayley Gillespie. "Why didn't he shoot in color? Why did he use this really dark style? And Robert said he wanted to evoke what it felt like for an outsider to come into the facility, what it felt like to be there in awe of all this gigantic, hugely powerful equipment. And he's into old sci-fi B-movies and film noir, so you can see that in the photos too."

But it's not only old B-level sci-fi movies that Robert Shults is into. Which is why – remember the wall space reserved for video projections? – this Saturday, March 28, the photographer (and the above-mentioned Ditmire and research scientist Gilliss Dyer) will be in the gallery to present a screening of one of Shults' cinematic influences: Chris Marker's La Jetée.

Note: Yes, that's the movie that also inspired Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys.

Addendum: No, neither Chris Marker nor Terry Gilliam nor Bruce Willis nor Brad Pitt will be in attendance. But when you're documenting something that creates the brightest light known to exist in the entire universe, who needs any kind of Hollywood starpower at all?

"The Superlative Light: Inside the Texas Petawatt Laser"

Art.Science.Gallery., 916 Springdale #102
Through April 11

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Art.Science.Gallery, Robert Shults, Texas Petawatt Laser, Hayley Gillespie, Todd Ditmire, Gilliss Dyer, Rudy Rucker, La Jetée, 12 Monkeys

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