Art Made on a High Speed Collision Course

By Shu-Ju Wang

A visit to Martin Waugh’s studio is a singular experience.

The art being made is invisible to the naked eye for its size and the speed at which it’s traveling. In the time that it takes a water droplet to fall 10 inches and a second water droplet to follow right behind, the camera and multiple flashes must be synchronized to  catch the droplets in action at the precise moment. Timing is everything and it’s measured in 1/1000 of a second.

Below, Good Catch.

Martin Waugh is a physicist and engineer, a tinkerer, builder, an inventor, artist, and is on his way to become a noun as well. A “Martin Waugh” is something that people refer to when they talk about one of his images. You may have already seen his work without realizing it–he has created commercial and design work for advertising, magazines, corporations and television. And he lives among us, right here in Portland!

Above, Narcissi.

While high speed photography has been with us for over a century, first made famous with Muybridge’s photographs of the horse galloping, and then later Edgerton’s image of the bullet piercing an apple, the advent of digital photography revolutionized the field. Timing became much more precise and minutely adjustable. And with the camera tethered to and controlled by a computer, you can see the images immediately and continue to fine tune until you capture the exact moment, whether it’s time of impact or 3/1000 second past impact.

Having this level of control with his equipment, Martin is able to experiment and play with other variables, such as different liquids used or different coloring agents. He has photographed cream dropping into coffee and he can tell you which kind of dyes changes the water behavior (aniline dyes) and which muddies up the water (food dyes).

But hold on, not so fast, for all is not so easily said and done.

While Martin has built a high speed photography studio to control timing and lighting, and to reduce vibration, there is much that is beyond his control. Take water, for example. Even with the water that comes out of his tap, there are many parameters that influence the outcome that can be out of his control–minute changes in water temperature, ambient temperature, changes in the amount of water in his catch basin. And although he didn’t say so, I imagine the hardness or softness of the water matters, and that probably changes in minuscule amounts constantly.

Above, Martin setting up his rig and camera, getting ready for another shot.

It is clear that Martin finds pleasure and joy in these unknowns; it’s what gives him room for play and opportunity for chance encounters. And from these unknowns, a wonderful world of motion, color, form and science are captured and presented to the audience.

Martin has the kind of humor and innocence that one associates with a creative genius who doesn’t have a clue that he is one…although I think he might be catching on. Having been a photographer since junior high, he always thought the real photographers were those other people who were doing this or that; in other words, somebody other than him, doing something other than what he was doing. Until he realized that he was making a real contribution to the field of high speed photography–mainly, the use of backlighting to photograph transparent subjects.

And in another first that he’s eager to try–high speed photography of DNA suspended in water. The long strands of DNA creates a ‘stickiness’ in the liquid that Martin expects will change the behavior of his liquid sculptures in unpredictable and exciting ways.

You can visit Martin’s studio during Portland Open Studios on October 9, 10, 16 & 17. Martin is artist number 21.

You can also see some of his work at the Art Institute of Portland, 1122 NW Davis Street; the exhibit is up from September 2 through 30.

To see more of Martin Waugh’s work online, please visit his website at

To learn more about Portland Open Studios, please visit

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