Irving Olson has been capturing photographic images for nearly 90 years. He continues to create pictures in a dark room, just not the “dark room” one typically associates with photo development. In a specially outfitted kitchenette in his Oro Valley home, Olson shuts out all light and digitally captures the fraction of a second when two, or sometimes three, drops of water collide. Olson, 99, had been intrigued by an article in a technical photography journal that described monochrome images of water drops colliding. Inspired by the idea, he experimented for months, eventually discovering that adding color to the water enabled him to create photographs that are explosive and compelling.
Olson began taking photographs as a child with one of Kodak’s earliest Brownie cameras. Photography has always been his hobby. He earned his living in electronics, founding Olson Electronics in Akron, Ohio. The business expanded to nearly 100 stores across the United States. Eventually he sold the enterprise to a company that became Radio Shack, which allowed him to retire at age 50. He has since devoted much of his time to creative photography.
Olson and his wife, Ruth, who died in 2011, spent nearly 50 years of retirement traveling the world together, recording the people and places they saw. “We visited more than 150 countries, traveling overseas at least twice a year,” Olson says. “One year we went abroad seven times.” Hundreds of images on the walls of Olson’s home attest to their wanderlust and the desire to document their impressions of life in other places. When asked about a particular photo Olson ruefully admits, “That may be my shot or it could be Ruth’s. We took so many pictures together I can’t always tell.”
Olson’s eyes light up when asked about how Ruth came to share his passion for photography. “We were in Montreal at a photography convention back in the 1950s,” he explains. “There were two seminars that I really wanted to go to but they were happening at the same time. So I asked Ruth if she wouldn’t mind attending one of the seminars and taking notes for me, which she did. Soon after that she said, ‘Give me one of your old cameras.’ And that was how she got hooked.” They continued shooting pictures together for nearly 60 years.
Olson’s latest work demonstrates his enthusiasm for embracing new technologies. Using a timer that measures out thousandths of a second, Olson links a digital camera, separate strobe flash and a device for releasing single drops of water over a tray of water. All the electronics are synchronized to record a collision — an event lasting a split second — when a green-dyed water drop rebounds out of a tray of red water at just the instant when a second descending green drop crashes down.
To most of us, photographing water drops might seem straightforward or even mundane. But the devil is in the details. Olson describes his challenges in capturing an image: “It happens so fast, there’s nothing to see. And there are so many variables that play in, like the humidity and temperature of the air, the temperature of the water in the tray and the water in the reservoir, or a gust of air from the air conditioner. I take the picture but won’t know that it’s usable until I’ve checked it out on the computer. I have to take close to 500 pictures to ensure that I get one good one.”
Those good ones Olson prints out on his own super-sized Epson printer. He uses a 24″ x 30″ format and these large photos are stunning. With a touch of imagination one sees all manner of people and objects: women dancing, bobble-headed men marching, mushrooms sprouting and people holding umbrellas. His images have caught the attention of many in the art world, not least the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., which featured Olson’s new work under the “Collage of Arts and Sciences” rubric of its blog. Olson says that according to the Smithsonian, the story on his water drop images generated three times the usual number of blog post “hits.” Recently, the Hearst Foundation bought two of Olson’s water drop images for its permanent art gallery in New York. When asked how the foundation heard about his original water drop pictures, he wryly replies, “Word gets around.”
Another of Olson’s water drop photos hangs at the Jewish Federation-Northwest office. Tucsonans can also see some of his latest images on the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra’s 2012-13 program and promotional flyer, as well as on the SASO website (www.sasomusic.org). A long time supporter of SASO, Olson says he donated his artwork for its publications because he admires people who work for the love of their art, rather than for the money. A good enough reason to sit in a dark room with the equivalent of a dripping faucet; it may provide a way to see everyday occurrences in a whole new colored light.
Renee Claire is a freelance writer in Tucson.