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Martin Waugh BS ‘76: Sculptor of Water

Startled, Martin Waugh stared in wonder and disbelief. The liquid sculpture he was orchestrating suddenly shifted shape into a random yet alluring image.

“I realized a second drop of water had collided into a rising splash, and I thought, ‘That should happen on purpose,’” he says.

Seven years later, Waugh has created more than 100,000 captivating images of water in flight–on purpose–using ultra-highspeed digital cameras and self-designed timing and flash devices.

His creativity has not gone unrecognized.

Waugh has been profiled by the Discovery Channel; he’s exhibited his artwork in Paris’ acclaimed Capital of Creation trade show; and he’s received recognition from Yahoo for his website ( Smirnoff Vodka ran his images of martini, highball, and whiskey “glasses” created from water in a recent advertising campaign. Not to mention the attention he’s received from photography and marketing magazines and blogs from around the world.

A scientist by training, a tinkerer by nature, and an artist by accident, Waugh says he found his way to Lewis & Clark at the suggestion of a guidance counselor at the small experimental high school he attended in Colorado.

“I was always precocious in math and had eclectic tastes and interests,” he says. “Physics caught my attention during sophomore year, and I switched majors with plans of teaching high school.”

But he didn’t find a fit in public education, so he taught himself computer programming and turned it into a lucrative 30-year career that also allowed him time to play.

Inspired by A.M. Worthington’s 1908 book, A Study of Splashes, and by Harold Edgerton of M.I.T., who invented the xenon flash tube in the 1930s, Waugh began experimenting with high-speed digital photography in the basement of his southwest Portland home.

“Serendipity and chance are my constant companions,” says Waugh, who shoots hundreds of images–making slight adjustments in timing and placement of drops of water to capture the moment he loves.

He positions a light source behind the water to mimic the way natural light reflects clouds in a mud puddle. And by adding glycerin to increase viscosity and make the water “gooier,” he’s able to catch crisp pictures of disturbances on the surface.

Setting up the equipment is the easy part, says Waugh. The challenge lies in calculating the timing and manipulating liquid. He sometimes adds food coloring or dyes to evoke a mood. With PhotoShop, he crops and cleans up the background and adjusts color balance–but refrains from using the software to manipulate shapes or adjust droplet placement.

“Physics reveals infinite beauty–if you just know where to look,” he says. “I still dance and chortle when I’m successful in creating an image I’ve envisioned in my mind.”

Along with sustaining his corporate clientele, Waugh hopes to move his work deeper into the field of fine art.

“At art shows, it always strikes me when I see people looking at my work with an expression of wonder on their faces,” says Waugh. “It’s so clear that the images tap into something pure and elemental in them. That’s unbelievably satisfying to me.”

–by Pattie Pace

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