The photographer who captured some of the most iconic images of the 20th century, and whose work is featured in art museums around the world, would most likely have described himself as a scientist. Nevertheless, it is as an artist that he is mostly remembered today, referred to as "the man who made time stand still."
Harold (Doc) Edgerton (1903-90) was an electrical engineer and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was an expert in the technology of gas-filled tubes, a vital part of the development of modern technology – most obviously radio and television. While still a graduate student, he developed a xenon-gas-filled tube that became the basis for the modern flashbulb, as well as proving highly effective as a strobe light, emitting extremely bright pulses of light in intervals as short as one-millionth of a second.
Ever the scientist, Edgerton explored the possibilities of the strobe by concentrating on pairing it with photography. He took images that are among the rare photographs that are instantly recognizable with just a few words of description: a drop of milk that looks like a crown or a bullet exploding out of the side of an apple.
His images, originally created as experiments to test the possibilities of the stroboscope, became emblems of the great optimism of the space age: We could not only erase distance but also stop time.
Edgerton made photographs for most of his career, recording movements in multiple-exposure works, or capturing instants in iconic single images. His work has migrated from the laboratory to the art museum, and is now held in most major photography collections across the globe. Recently a small collection of his work was gifted to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. The 30 works it acquired will go on view beginning Saturday, in a show curated by Sarah Fillmore.
Bullet Through Apple
1964 (printed in 1984)
Dye transfer print on paper, 40.8 by 50.8 centimetres, edition of 240
This is perhaps Edgerton's most famous photograph, one he used in a lecture at MIT called "How to make applesauce." The photograph illustrated that the passage of the bullet, travelling at supersonic speed, is as visually explosive at the entry point as at the exit. The apple was completely pulped. The exhibition at the AGNS includes related photographs of bullets passing through a light bulb, a flame, balloons and even a banana.
Bullet Through Jack
1964 (printed in 1985)
Dye transfer print on paper, 40.4 by 50.8 cm, 187/225
Edgerton's photographs of bullets passing through playing cards are among his most famous images. The incredible velocity captured, about 700 metres a second, and the superfast exposure speed of a millionth of a second, means that the image of the card, which has been cut in half, was captured before it began to fall. Of course, shooting a playing card has long been a marksman's trick, and Edgerton here is displaying both a nice sense of drama and a certain humour in his choice of target.
Cranberry Juice (Dyedrop) Into Milk
1960 (printed in 1984-85)
Dye transfer print on paper, 50.4 by 40.8 cm, edition of 200
Edgerton obviously enjoyed the ability to use colour film for his photographs, returning to images originally captured in black and white to add colour to the composition. Here he adds a twist to a series of photographs he made in the 1930s of drops of milk. In this image he has captured the effect of a drop of cranberry juice into milk. It is almost sculptural, a perfectly symmetrical column that looks like a pawn from a chess game.
Swirls and Eddies: Tennis
1939 (printed in 1984-85)
Gelatin silver print on paper, 50.8 by 60.5 cm, edition of 25
Edgerton's strobe equipment could capture more than single images. Using multiple exposures printed as one image, he was able to capture the sequence of movements that are usually too fast to isolate. By photographing them against black backgrounds he created striking, near-abstract compositions like this one of a tennis serve. Divers, dancers, baton twirlers, gymnasts and football players are other examples of subjects included in the AGNS exhibition.
Harold Edgerton: The Man Who Made Time Stand Still is at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia from Feb. 25 to Aug. 13 (artgalleryofnovascotia.ca).