Ernie Button - Vanishing Spirits: The Dried Remains of Single Malt Scotch
For over 35 years, Phoenix, Arizona has been my home. For much of my adult life, photography has provided me a forum to communicate my past & present, my humor & concerns, my observations & explorations. It has undeniably changed the way I see the world; how I look at individuals, places, or objects. Although my subject matter varies, my images focus on the individual nature of objects (and occasionally people) and the unique qualities that each possesses. My images often provide a voice to objects that are ignored and are frequently overlooked or taken for granted.
Check out Ernie's Website to see full portfolio
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Ernie Button and I am a photographer that creates fine art from whisky. For over 40 years, Phoenix Arizona has been my home. For most of my adult life, photography has provided me a forum to communicate my past & present, my humor & concerns, my observations & explorations. Although my subject matter varies, my images tend to focus on the individual nature of objects (and occasionally people) and the unique qualities that each possesses. My images often provide a voice to objects that are over-looked or taken for granted.
Vanishing Spirits is a project that was born out of a love of whisky. I take this finely crafted product and through my unique drying process after the last drop of whisky has been consumed, I work to reveal the beauty in the residue left behind. The results are otherworldly images. As a fan of whisky, my photography is a unique way to highlight the many fantastic qualities of this time-honored drink. My photography has been featured in numerous national and international exhibitions as well as publications around the world including features in the NY Times, NPR, Smithsonian Magazine, Fast Company, Scientific American, SciArt in America and Wired magazine. Scientific research inspired by my Vanishing Spirits photography has been published in the Physics journal Physical Review Letters in March 2016.
How did you choose photography as a medium, career and art form?
I have always been interesting in the creative arts from writing to performing to music. I have been interested in photography since my early teenage years. However, I really didn’t know anything about the art world until my wife went to graduate school for fine art painting. Her experience there opened my eyes to the art world, which fascinated me. Since that time over 20 years ago, I have been exhibiting my work, showing and sharing my photography as much as time will allow.
Can you tell us more about the process you use in order to create the images in this body of work?
The idea for this project occurred while putting a used whisky glass into the dishwasher. I noted a film on the bottom of a glass and when I inspected closer, I noted these fine, lacy lines filling the bottom. What I found through some experimentation is that these patterns and images that I see can be created with the small amount of Single-Malt Scotch left in a glass after most of it has been consumed. The alcohol dries and leaves the sediment in various patterns. It’s a little like snowflakes in that every time the Scotch dries, the glass yields different patterns and results. I have used different color lights to add ‘life’ to the bottom of the glass, creating the illusion of landscape, terrestrial or extra-terrestrial. Some of the images reference the celestial, as if the image was taken of space; something that the Hubble telescope may have taken or an image taken from space looking down on Earth. The circular image references a drinking glass, typically a circle, and what the consumer might see if they were to look at the bottom of the glass after the scotch has dried.
As the project evolved, the challenge became which glass to use and how to get the most out of the bottom of the glass. Each glass has a different interior surface and exterior surface so if there are scratches on the outside of the glass, that will impact the final image. If the interior surface is not level or uneven in any way, that will impact how the image dries. The lines of Scotch are so thin, they have very little depth to them. To get them to really stand out, it requires subtle movements of the lights. I use a significant number of different flashlights and desktop lights to layer multiple colors and strength of light beams onto the surface.
It is interesting that this project started from a random and unexpected encounter with this scotch left over's in the dishwasher. How do you feel about work that is sparked by accident and not pre planned?
I think it is fantastic. Inspiration is necessary and it can come in so many different forms if you are open to it. As an artist, it’s important for me to be open to the possibilities, to pay attention to the results whether intentional or unintentional and explore. It may lead to nothing interesting or something fantastic.
I am a fan of observing my world and the things that are happening around me; noticing the smaller details that may be ignored or overlooked. So I am always on the lookout for something interesting to photograph. I tend to photograph things that I’m passionate about, that get me thinking emotionally and intellectually. The Vanishing Spirits whisky project evolved out of a love for my wife and wanting to share in something that is special to her and members of her family as well as a chance observation of a whisky glass inadvertently left-out overnight on a table. The family interest is what started the project. What kept me going and interested in the project long-term were the amazing patterns that the dried whisky continued to create time after time. I find it infinitely fascinating that a seemingly ‘clear’ liquid can dry and leave these beautiful patterns and lines on a consistent basis.
This project seems to be very different than your other bodies of work, it has more of a scientific feeling to it, where as many of your photographs have more of a "straight photography" approach to them. Can you talk about this notion?
Referring back to the previous question, I am always looking for the next thing to inspire me. I have multiple interests, as most people do, and I often times want to explore those through photography. It’s all coming from the need to explore items or topics on multiple levels. I get just as much enjoyment setting up a pyramid of Cheerios or fiddling with the lighting set-up to get just the right glow on a Scotch ring as I do walking around a new city snapping images with my Holga. If I feel I’ve reached a point of stagnation in a project, I will work on something else to get a fresh perspective. With the Cerealism project, I took a 4 year break to work on other projects and came back to it in 2012. With Vanishing Spirits, the first image I successfully made was around 2007.
Travel and studio photography are obviously different subject matters but the thought process for me is roughly the same. When I was a youngster, I spent a lot of time working on jigsaw puzzles. The concentration, the thought organization, the shape / visual problem solving; it all worked for me. So being able to work in a studio with a diorama set-up that has challenges or problems to overcome is comfortable for me as an adult. In looking at a lot of my travel images, many of them are very much still-life images as if I created them in studio, just at human scale. The beautiful thing about photographing when I travel is that it gets me out of the studio, out of a comfort zone and pushes me to try images I would not normally try.
What do you consider a successful photograph?
It’s my feeling that good art should transport a person, to be impactful, to provoke a thought, emotion or reaction. We all approach art (viewing art or making art) with our own thoughts, ideas and concerns so if I can get a person to gaze at these images and get their thoughts going, enjoy the beauty of the image, to get lost in the colors, pondering what they are looking at and the potential of what it could be, that would be perfect. I want to get lost in the possibility that these lines and shapes may be a new planet, new solar system, a new bit of terrestrial landscape that hasn’t been discovered yet.
What tools do you use as an artist and photographer that are crucial in your bag (physically or metaphorically) ?
I am constantly thinking about my photographs or photography.
The physical tools for the studio: Lots of lights of a variety of size, colored filters, Nikon D7100, extension tubes and whisky. Dried whisky has a wonderful smell that engulfs my studio.
Physical tools for non-studio work: lots of film and several holgas, iPhone, tripod, and occasionally flash and/or powerful flashlights.
Who inspires your work?
I am constantly inspired by the talent and positive attitude of my wife. Other specific people: DaVinci, Michelangelo, Picasso, Michael Kenna, Keith Carter, Richard Misrach, Todd Hido, Greg Crewdson, Robert ParkeHarrison, Lori Nix, Albert Watson, Odd Nerdrum, Zaha Hadid.
What is the best advice someone has ever given you?
Most of what I’ve picked up throughout my time on this earth has been more practical life advice, some of which could be applied to making art.
1. Work hard at everything you do.
2. Everything in moderation i.e. balance.
3. There is always someone working harder than you.
4. Invest money at an early age and take advantage of compounding interest.
5. Success comes in cans, not cannots.
What is your biggest failure as an artist? Did this failure, in the long run, help in in any way?
There is so much consistent rejection in the creative arts that it’s tough to single-out the “biggest”. I’m not sure I have a “biggest” but I have lots of set-backs in my photography career. However, I enjoy what I am doing in photography so much, I just keep making images.
Early in my photography career, I attended many portfolio reviews, attempting to get feedback on my work as well as make contacts to help share my photography. I am particularly fond of Photolucida in Portland which is a very well run event. These portfolio reviews are something very unique to the photography world and can be extremely helpful, if you can take the onslaught of feedback in such a very short period of time. At the time of attending one of these events, I had just begun to make images for Vanishing Spirits and was so excited by what I was making and excited to share with the reviewers and see what they thought. To my disappointment, no one understood what I was doing and they didn’t see the potential in the images I was sharing with them. I was so disappointed and spent the next week wallowing in self-pity. After that week, I was more determined to bring to the viewer what I was seeing in the glass and the vision I had in my head that I wanted to bring to the final image which required hundreds of hours and thousands of images.
Also, getting a publisher for a monograph of the Vanishing Spirits collection has been a consistent struggle.
What is your next project? What are you currently working on?
I have recently had a few Whisky Companies contact me about working with them on a future advertising campaign using my whisky photography process. But nothing is official right now so I can’t name the distilleries. I have applied for a major grant to continue exploring this whisky drying phenomenon so fingers-crossed for that to come through. And I am exploring video of the whisky drying phenomenon. I always have a few other projects in the works. I still use film and my Holga cameras while I travel and having just returned from Italy, I have many, many images to sort through, scan and clean up. There is another project that I just started, exploring the passage of time & memory while capitalizing on a technical issue on my smartphone camera. More to come on that front.