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Back in the 1930s, an electrical engineer from Nebraska, working at MIT, developed the first “strobe” flash for photography, changing the way motion is documented. Dr. Harold Edgerton took thousands of high-speed photographs during his career, and some from his estate are on public display for the first time at Michael Hoppen Gallery in London.
Dr. Harold Edgerton: Abstractions, which opened last month, has photographs with exposure times up to 1/1,000,000 of a second — a speed that turns a tennis player’s serve into a fan of rackets and the layers of smoke from a bullet into a frozen duo of clouds hovering by the barrel. Edgerton, who passed away in 1990, was obsessed with the “experience of seeing the unseen,” as he called it, extending his photographic experimentation into aerial night reconnaissance during World War II with high-powered strobe lights and later collaborating with Jacques-Yves Cousteau on techniques for documenting the ocean floor. The Edgerton Center at MIT, where he was a professor, carries on his legacy in researching high-speed and scientific imaging.
Many of Edgerton’s photos are now iconic, such as the splash of a drop of milk, and like Thomas Eakins and Eadweard Muybridge before him, his work impacted both art and science. However, he was notoriously adamant about the work being strictly scientific, proclaiming: “Don’t make me out to be an artist. I am an engineer. I am after the facts, only the facts.”
Yet the facts are often mesmerizing. The repetitiveness of his experiments, along with the meticulous framing, suggest that Edgerton had at least some passion for making the unseen moments of motions compelling, and had a lot of fun playing with the visuals. Each frame — whether it depicts dropping an egg into the blades of a fan or piercing a playing card with a bullet — changes our perception of those actions, our world view suddenly abstracted.
Dr. Harold Edgerton: Abstractions continues at Michael Hoppen Gallery (3 Jubilee Place, London) through August 2.