The 20th-Century Photographer Who Captured What the Eye Can’t See

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Milk Drop Coronet, 1957, printed 1984-90Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of The Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation 96.126.3. © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum

Doctor Harold Edgerton was a pioneer of flash photography, and his innovative technology revolutionised the way we take pictures

Who? By developing flash technology and the use of the stroboscope, electrical engineer Doctor Harold Edgerton was able to revolutionise the field of photography. The prolific photographer and professor of engineering at Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology became known as ‘Papa Flash’ (labelled so by Jacques Cousteau) and ‘the man who froze time’ thanks to his advancements, pioneering in the 1930s the electronic flash equipment that is so readily used in photography today. “He learnt photography as a teenager and then studied engineering and got a PhD at MIT,” says Carrie Springer, assistant curator at New York’s Whitney Museum, “and his technical innovations allowed him to photograph images and objects that moved faster than the eye could see. He perfected the stroboscope, and brought it into a modern era.” Edgerton was lauded for his photographic work: his images were regularly printed in Life magazine, he released photo-books, and his short film – created with stroboscope technology – Quicker’n a Wink won an Oscar in 1940.

What? Edgerton’s approach to photography was characterised by its scientific, experimental nature: he was analytical and sought innovation, and married these traits with an eye for the unexpected and beautiful compositions. Springer notes that when it came to image-making, Edgerton would revisit the same shots in order to discover something new: “in many instances he repeated them and photographed them. [The circumstances] weren’t entirely controllable, and if you did the same thing over and over again you weren’t necessarily going to get exactly the same shot.”

Over the course of his photography career, one subject he frequently revisited was the milk drop, his stroboscope technology allowing him to capture the usually unseen moment of the liquid surging up in a coronet shape upon impact, resulting in what Springer describes as “astonishingly beautiful images”. Moving actions – a man swinging a golf club, a dancer mid-routine, or a girl with a skipping rope – were also key to Edgerton’s oeuvre, the slow-motion effect of the flash producing multiple iterations of the movement as it plays out across the frame. “He was really intrigued by the physical world and the kind of magic that was happening in these very simple things: water dripping from the faucet, his daughter jumping rope in the living room, hairspray being sprayed out of a bottle,” says Springer. “All these simple things that you can’t see – I think he was intrigued by the magic.” ‘Magical’ proves an apt description of these photographs; they seem to defy reality and possibility. Take the images of a bullet tearing through various objects (playing cards, pieces of fruit, balloons, cigarettes): seeing such an event in static form is unbelievable, and makes for captivating viewing.

Why? Flash is a new exhibition at the Whitney that brings together photographs by Edgerton from the museum’s collection. The show draws on all aspects of the professor’s photography: from moving figures and work in colour, to studies of a milk glass breaking and early stroboscopic photographs. By creating prolific work in both science and art, Edgerton’s career remains a particularly unique and influential one; its impact is still felt today, almost 30 years after his death in 1990. Edgerton’s photographs “were like experiments in a way, or they weren’t like ‘I’m going to get this particular shot that you could plan entirely’ – there was a lot of chance involved and I think that was really important to him: to see what he got rather than to have in his mind what he was going to get,” says Springer. “He kind of took advantage of chance moments, with a lot of planning involved, of course.”

Flash: Photographs by Harold Edgerton from the Whitney’s Collection runs at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from March 30, 2018.