Exhibition Review: Flash: Photographs by Harold Edgerton from the Whitney's Collection
By Ilana Jael
Science and art are sometimes thought of as opposite endeavors; but there’s no more overwhelming proof that the two pursuits can not only coexist but fuel one another than in the works of engineer and photographer Harold Edgerton, most famous for developing technological innovations that forever changed the way motion could be represented on film. A small selection of these works, drawn from the Whitney’s collection, is now on view at the museum indefinitely in an exhibition curated by Carrie Springer and fittingly entitled Flash.
Born in Nebraska and eventual holder of a Doctorate in Science from MIT in electrical engineering, Edgerton brought an intellectual curiosity and a dedicated scientist’s perseverance into his photographic pursuits. Most of his images explore the monumental power of the stroboscope, an instrument that Edgerton eventually developed versions of for use in both single-flash and multi-flash photography with the help of some of his MIT colleagues. The power of this technology to capture a “fast-moving object or event” such as an athletic endeavor is seen in the bell-clear Untitled (Diver) and Charles Hare Swerves. In the more surreal Moving Skip Rope and Indian Club Demonstration, the titular object of each picture is portrayed at multiple points during its path of motion, all in a singular mesmerizing image.
Even everyday sights could become sources of transcendent visual wonder thanks to Edgerton’s inventive spirit. Not one to cry over spilled milk, the gravitational intricacies of the household liquid were instead some that fascinated Edgerton for over two decades. Finding that the image of each drop and its crown-like “coronet” was always different depending on factors as minute as “the size of a milk drop, the height from which it fell, and the thickness of the liquid”, he repeated the same process over and over until he finally achieved the result he’d hope for. In other shots that must have required intricate setup and endless takes, Edgerton immortalizes on film the exact moment a bullet shatters a light bulb or pierces a balloon.
And the advent of color photography in the 1930s only enhanced the engineer’s photographic “experiments”, as Edgerton integrated this new element into his craft with all the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning, attacking many of his former subjects with renewed verve. Another Diver is now clad in a neon pink speedo; white milk now splashes onto a sleek red surface in Milk Drop Coronet; and the bullet that once shattered a light bulb now pierces the striking red and yellow of a playing card against a background of suave royal blue in Kings. But despite the fact that his legacy is undeniable, that Edgerton’s works can now be found a mere few floors underneath those of renowned masters like Richard Avedon and Zoe Leonard may have surprised even him. Though the aesthetic and philosophical value of his unique and playful creations is obvious, Edgerton was reportedly uncomfortable calling himself an artist at all!