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That’s No Moon …

Like the spilled contents of some cosmic bag of marbles, it’s amazing to behold the colors and varieties of the planets in our solar system and the universe. These vistas have become so iconic and inspiring that we can see them even in the mundane here on Earth.

Photographer and artist Santiago Betancur manages to capture the jaw-dropping sense of scale and spectrum-spanning colors of celestial spheres from ordinary soap bubbles.

Looking like a sight that could appear in a NASA photo or the bridge view screen right after emerging from hyperspace, the effect is powerful enough to split your brain between perspectives: what you think you’re seeing and what you know you’re seeing.

“To study the perfection and mystery of nature as a dance between intelligence and beauty,” says Betancur, “Requires you to activate your two brain hemispheres simultaneously — it provides you a deeper and complete experience.”

The myriad colors on the surface of each bubble move and morph in ways that closely resemble miniature versions of planetary weather patterns. When seen in motion, the effect is even more striking.

The physics behind the scintillating spectra on the bubbles’ surface — which involves the interference of reflected wavelengths bouncing through its transparent surfaces — is operating at a much, much, much (… much) smaller scale than that of a planet. But the suggestion of such vast movements in such a delicate arrangement of oil and water only adds to their intrigue.

The intensity of the detail only increases as you get closer to the bubbly surface. Rivers, eddies, currents and land masses seem to appear in false color on the surface of the temporary world.

Unlike the surface of a planet, these instances of generative beauty require no special cameras, time lapse, or access to a rocket. “You can see and appreciate the intensity of the colors with the naked eye,” Betancur says. “I inflate bubbles, one by one, during sleepless nights, shooting hundreds of them, often with a feeling of astonishment … To see a bubble falling over you as a planet is a poetry of power hidden in a tiny universe.”

The bubbles are shot on a black background using white plexiglass to diffuse the light on the bubbles’ surfaces. Using stroboscopic light, Betancur will play with the temperature, soap-to-water ratios, and different angles with the light to achieve different effects. The full spheres are usually shot with a wide-angle lens, the details with a macro lens.

Betancur is no stranger to grand themes. His other work in photo, painting and sculpture often deal with large, intractable matters of identity, religion, and capitalism. In 2002, he reached a dark place in his work. He says a “special moment of light” entered his life when he started appreciating the lovely details on the surfaces of soap bubbles. They’ve now become part of his larger effort to capture eternal themes and ideas in his work that try to straddle a line between art and science.

“I explore universal forms through the soap bubbles,” Betancur says. “They immerse me into abstractions, where the same substance is constantly in transfiguration. It has an impact at the same time on my perceptions of beauty as artist, and on my mind, making me wonder as a scientist.”

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Doug Bierend

Doug Bierend


Writer, generalist, sometimes journalist, concerned citizen. Ecology / equity / degrowth / “tech” / opinions. In Search of Mycotopia out now @chelseagreen!